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foreign policy

Don’t Believe China Is Looking for a Fight?

Years of incidents show heightened belligerence

The run-in with the Chinese navy described in our companion article was hardly the first encounter the U.S . and neighboring nations have had with China. These confrontations have the potential to easily devolve into military conflict.

Last August a Chinese pilot flew his jet fighter within 20-30 feet of a U.S. Navy patrol plane over international waters 100 miles off China's Hainan Island and flipped over to show the armament under its wings. "Very, very close. Very dangerous," was Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby's assessment. “So totally high school", said one American defense official. Adm. Dennis Blair, then chief of the United States Pacific Command, called the intercept "bumper cars in the air,” and charged that the Chinese military has increasingly been tailing American jets. There had been three other such provocations in the preceding six months.

"A growing record of encounters suggests that Chinese naval officers have career incentives to act provocatively, even at the risk of deadly incidents", is the belief of military strategist Edward Luttwak writing in the Wall Street Journal.

In 2009 off China's Hainan Island, five Chinese vessels in international waters forced an unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance ship to withdraw. The Pentagon lodged a protest with Beijing, calling the action illegal, unprofessional and dangerous.

It happened again in December 2013. The 10,000-ton missile cruiser USS Cowpens, seen here leading Japanese vessels in a training exercise, was monitoring China's first aircraft carrier in international waters

when a Chinese naval vessel attempted a blocking maneuver, coming within an extremely hazardous 100 meters.

The worst instance was when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane in 2001. It was forced to land on Hainan, where its 24 crew members were held for 10 days. The Chinese pilot died.

East of Taiwan and west of Okinawa, seven hours by boat from Japan but still further from China, the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are but five islets and three barren rocks populated only by feral goats. But they are controlled by Japan and now China is now laying claim. China's coast guard patrols the waters around the islands and have entered Japanese territorial waters. Japan's F-15s scramble in pairs from Naha air force base on Okinawa more or less daily to intercept jets from the Chinese mainland that continually probe the airspace over the Senkakus. In a recent one year period, Japan had to scramble fighter jets a record 415 times. In May and June of last year Chinese fighters buzzed within 100 feet of Japanese reconnaissance planes. In January 2013, the Chinese targeted a Japanese destroyer and helicopter with fire-control radar.

In April of last year President Obama made a swing through Southeast Asia to reassure the region of our support against the growing threat of China. Less than a week later Beijing's answer was to send an oil rig well inside Vietnam's 200-mile economic zone, guarded by a flotilla of 80 military and civilian ships. When 30 Vietnamese boats countered to demand withdrawal, the Chinese rammed the Vietnamese vessels injuring several Vietnamese sailors. There followed violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnamese cities. U.S. reassurance extended no further than words.

In 2011, Vietnam officials claim Chinese boats cut cables of ships exploring for oil within Vietnam's 200-mile zone. China said that they were outside the zone and being chased by Vietnam's ships when a fishing net accidentally snagged the cable. Mocking Vietnam for then commencing live-fire drills, China's Global Times found it amusing that a small country once invaded by China now "tries to blackmail China. If Vietnam insists on making trouble…then we truly wish to remind those who determine policy in Vietnam to please read your history".

Malaysia last fall offered to act as host for U.S. spy planes to patrol the southern rim of the South China Sea after China began sailing military ships into those waters with the implicit threat against Malaysia for its offshore oil and gas exploration.

As with Vietnam, Chinese patrol boats had harassed Philippine oil-exploration vessels near the Spratly Islands. In 2011, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships ordered a Philippine survey boat to leave the area around Reed Bank and, according to the Philippines, threatened to ram the boat. The Philippines later sent military planes to the area.

Then, three years ago President Benigno Aquino sent the Philippines' only warship to drive out Chinese vessels caught fishing the Scarborough Shoal, a triangle of reefs in the South China Sea claimed by both the Philippines and China. That triggered a response from China of "10 ships, 31 fishing boats, and 50 dinghies". The U.S. got both sides to agree to withdraw their warships, but China reneged on the deal and never left. The U.S. did nothing to enforce its mediation which led Roberto Romulo, former Philippines foreign secretary, to say, "China is eating America’s lunch in Southeast Asia.”

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