Maritime Confrontation Highlights Troubled State of China-U.S. Defense Diplomacy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 9

The recriminations that flared between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States over the latest Sino-American maritime confrontation makes evident how little progress has been made in Sino-U.S. defense dialogue during the past two decades. Clashes between U.S. and Chinese military units operating in the sea and air near China have become a recurring disruption in the bilateral relations. They will burden the Obama administration as it seeks to develop Sino-American security relations in the coming years.

The Impeccable Incident

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) claims that, on March 8, five Chinese vessels—ranging from two small trawlers to three larger vessels—deliberately interfered with the operations of the unarmed USNS Impeccable while it was conducting surveillance in international waters some 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of China’s Hainan Island. According to the Pentagon, the Chinese ships maneuvered in front of the Impeccable, dropped wood in its path, forced it to make an emergency stop, and at one point tried to grab the ship’s towed sonar array. Lacking any weapons, the Impeccable’s crew sprayed a water cannon at an approaching Chinese ship, but the Chinese sailors stripped to their underwear and kept their pursuit.

Chinese officials did not deny the details of the incident, but characterized the American surveillance activities as fundamentally improper and arrogant. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu told reporters at a March 10 Beijing news conference that, “The claims by the US [sic] are flatly inaccurate and unacceptable to China.” Ma added: “Engaging in activities in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea without China’s permission, U.S. navy surveillance ship Impeccable broke relevant international law as well as Chinese laws and regulations. China has lodged solemn representations to the US. We urge the US to take effective measures to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future” [1].China’s government-controlled media then quoted senior naval officials who characterized the Impeccable as behaving “like a spy” and “like a man with a criminal record wandering just outside the gate of a family home. When the host comes out to find out what he is doing there, the man complains that the host had violated his rights” (China Daily, March 11).

Chinese denunciations continued after the Pentagon ordered U.S. warships to escort the Impeccable and the other unarmed surveillance ships operating near China. The state media quoted people affiliated with the Chinese Navy as denouncing the move for signaling an American intent to “keep on pressing” U.S. claims in the South China Sea through a disproportionate response (AFP, March 13). Zhang Deshun, deputy chief of staff of the navy, complained that the “Americans are villains crying foul” (Reuters, March 10). On March 24, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang warned that Beijing would continue to press the issue in the future: “The resolve of the Chinese Government to safeguard territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests is resolute” [2].

The Impeccable is one of several oceanographic surveillance vessels, with a mixed civilian and military crew, which belong to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. These ships use advanced sonar and acoustics technologies to map the ocean floor in order to establish a baseline background, making it easier to identify submarines, mines and other foreign objects, which they can also track directly (The Associated Press, March 10). The previous year, Western media highlighted the surprisingly large extent of a major new Chinese navy base on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province. Analysts estimate the facility may have the capacity to house dozens of submarines and surface warships, include possibly aircraft carriers, within its enormous manmade tunnels, where they would not be visible to overland imagery (The Telegraph, May 6, 2008).

The Pentagon subsequently disclosed that the March 8 confrontation represented but the latest of several Chinese attempts in early March to disrupt Navy operations around China. The USNS Victorious, a similar unarmed surveillance ship, also suffered harassment from Chinese ships and airplanes. On March 4, a Chinese patrol boat shined a high-powered spotlight onto the Victorious, which was sailing in international waters in the Yellow Sea. The following day, a Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew over the vessel a dozen times, while a Chinese frigate sailed within 100 yards of the Impeccable after an aircraft also flew over that ship (Aviation Week, April 9). On March 7, a Chinese ship warned the Impeccable by radio that it was conducting illegal operations and had to leave the area.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell complained that “this incident is not at all consistent with the expressed desire of both governments to build a closer relationship, particularly a closer military-to-military relationship” [3]. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu told reporters at a March 10 Beijing news conference that, “The claims by the US are flatly inaccurate and unacceptable to China” [4]. The issue was a major subject of discussion when Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke with President Obama in the White House on March 12 during a previously scheduled meeting. According to a White House press release, “The President also stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of the U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents” [5].

In his testimony to the Senate on March 10, the new director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, recalled an earlier episode—in which he was personally involved as head of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which closely resembled the latest clash. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane, on a routine reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea, about 70 miles off the Chinese coast, collided with one of the two Chinese F-8 II fighter jets that had flown to intercept it. Like the Impeccable incident, the EP-3 affair occurred beyond China’s territorial seas, which extend 12 miles from the Chinese coast, but inside China’s self-declared 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), where Beijing asserts the United States has no right to conduct intelligence gathering operations. Blair described the Impeccable affair as “the most serious that we’ve seen since 2001, the EP-3 incident” (Washington Times, March 11). Indeed, these disturbances have recurred for almost two decades, ever since the Chinese military began to operate regularly outside of China’s territorial waters and air space.

A week after the Impeccable incident, Navy Admiral Timothy J. Keating, current head of the PACOM, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, despite some progress in early 2008 in developing Chinese-American military ties, “the relationship certainly isn’t where we want it to be” and that “a mature, constructive mil-to-mil relationship is hardly the reality of the day” (American Forces Press Service, March 19).

Although acknowledging that the Chinese government has become somewhat more open in recent years, the authors of the latest DOD report on China’s military power likewise complains that Chinese officials have yet to “view transparency less as a transaction to be negotiated and more as a responsibility that accompanies the accumulation of national power” [6]. It also warns that, “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by creating uncertainty and increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation” [7].

Impediments to Defense Diplomacy

Several recurring problems have impeded military diplomacy between the two defense establishments. The main obstacle has been the underlying climate of security tension between China and the United States. Repeatedly, adverse political and military developments have derailed Chinese-American defense ties. Curtailing military exchanges have been a favored diplomatic mechanism for both Beijing and Washington to signal displeasure with some development in the overall relationship.

The Chinese have readily suspended various military visits, exchanges, and other defense contacts after the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, the EP-3 collision, and in retaliation for the announcement of major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Most recently, Beijing froze U.S.-Chinese defense cooperation for the remainder of the Bush administration after the White House notified Congress in October 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion in military equipment, the largest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in history. The Chinese government canceled high-level defense visits, refused to allow U.S. Navy ships to make calls at China’s ports, and suspended meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and WMD nonproliferation—effectively canceling or suspending almost a dozen China-U.S. military exchange programs (The Associated Press, March 11). The Chinese authorities have also denied permission for U.S. Navy ships to visit Hong Kong on other occasions, including several times in late 2007, without providing a formal explanation for the refusals (Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2007).

Accidents have also disrupted Sino-American military exchanges. The mistaken U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 led the Chinese to drastically curtail military contacts. The Chinese government suspended bilateral talks on international security issues (such as arms control and nonproliferation), human rights, and other subjects of concern to various U.S. government agencies. Chinese authorities also froze all Sino-American military exchanges and stopped authorizing U.S. Navy port calls in Chinese ports, including to Hong Kong [8]. They soon forbade American military aircraft from landing in Hong Kong as well [9]. Similarly, the April 2001 crisis resulting from the EP-3 collision discouraged the new Bush administration from attempting to reinvigorate military ties.

Another complication arises from the Chinese fear that improved transparency could provide U.S. military intelligence with insights into Beijing’s defense vulnerabilities. Concealing China’s military assets and plans complicates foreign military efforts to identify Chinese military targets or respond effectively to Chinese defense programs. Beijing’s reluctance to reduce uncertainty regarding their military doctrine and capabilities had perhaps its greatest impact on the U.S.-led efforts to establish ties with China’s nuclear weapons establishment. Until now, however, Chinese leaders have eschewed detailed transparency measures that would facilitate the ability of the United States to locate and destroy China’s strategic and conventional weapons [10]. Despite occasional interactions between U.S. officers and members of the Chinese Second Artillery, which has responsibility for China’s strategic forces, the Chinese defense community has been perennially averse to allowing a Sino-American dialogue between their strategic forces. In addition to not wanting to draw attention to their strategic build-up, Chinese officials worry about exposing vulnerabilities to a potential foe, particularly given U.S. efforts to develop ballistic missile defenses, robust offensive nuclear forces, and even conventional precision-strike munitions, which could target China’s strategic forces as well as their command and control systems.

In April 2006, Presidents Bush and Hu agreed to undertake a bilateral strategic nuclear dialogue to promote mutual confidence and understanding. Nonetheless, little progress ensued. At a June 2008 conference in Beijing involving Chinese and American strategic experts, the Chinese participants, which included influential members of the Beijing arms control community, made clear their aversion to strategic transparency. Although the attendees acknowledged China’s need to provide additional data about its  conventional forces and defense budget, they argued that making China’s nuclear capabilities more transparent would only harm their country’s security given the vulnerability of its small nuclear force to a decapitating American first-strike. Instead, they argued that the uncertainty enhanced strategic stability by effectively deterring such an attack [11]. When then President Bush announced the largest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in history in October 2008, Beijing suspended the nuclear dialogue for the rest of his administration.

The military relationship between China and the United States during the 1990s differed in many respects from that which existed between the United States and USSR during the 1970s and 1980s. These differences meant that lessons learned from the Soviet-American experience with military-to-military contacts and confidence-building measures could not apply fully to the Chinese-American interaction. Whereas Soviet and American military forces operated, and had the potential to clash, throughout the world, Chinese forces, until recently, remained close to their territory. Despite furious Chinese protests, moreover, the United States has continued to conduct extensive air and maritime surveillance operations within China’s 200 nautical-mile EEZ, with American military planes and ships operating in China’s periphery on a daily basis. Chinese government documents and speeches by Chinese leaders have made clear that the PLA aims to continue to increase its global presence. Beijing therefore has rejected measures that could codify existing asymmetries in operating patterns. In particular, Chinese officials refuse to recognize the legitimacy of U.S. military intelligence gathering in international airspace and waters near the Chinese mainland.

There has long been a perceived lack of reciprocity in the Sino-American exchanges. While the U.S. officials involved seek substantive dialogues and briefings, their Chinese counterparts pursue more the symbolism of high-level interactions. Especially during the 1990s, U.S. military and civilian leaders complained that, whereas they provided their Chinese interlocutors with many detailed presentations, publications, and access to diverse military facilities, their PLA handlers offered them show sites and vacuous lectures.

Complaints about reciprocity declined during the Bush administration, primarily because U.S. officials scaled back their expectations for the exchanges and became very vigilant in order not to risk the disclosure of high-technology weapons systems and sophisticated operational techniques to the Chinese government. In any case, solving the reciprocity problem will require overcoming some of the underlying difficulties discussed above that prompt the Chinese to limit what they are willing to show and tell the now jaded American defense community.

The Impeccable incident is another sign that, despite years of military-to-military talks, the Chinese and American defense communities still fundamentally disagree regarding how to manage bilateral relations in ways that eschew acute confrontations. Both governments strive to avoid jeopardizing their broader political and economic relationship as they manage their security differences. Yet, the basic problem is that China’s growing military strength is enabling Chinese policymakers to challenge more directly American defense practices that Beijing has long opposed. The main issue concerns the right of the United States to conduct maritime surveillance operations in international waters that fall within China’s EEZ. Further defense talks or additional confidence-building measures cannot by themselves overcome what at bottom both sides view as issues of principle—national sovereignty for the Chinese, and freedom of the seas for the Americans.


1. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu’s Regular Press Conference on March 10,” 2009,
2. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang’s Regular Press Conference on March 24, 2009,
3. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), “DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, U.S. Department of Defense, March 11, 2009,
4. Ministry fo Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu’s Regular Press Conference on March 10, 2009,”
5. Office of the White House Press Secretary, “Readout on the President’s Meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi,” March 12, 2009,
6. Office of Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009,” U.S. Department of Defense, p. vii.
5. Ibid., p. i.
7. June Teufel Dreyer, “Clinton’s China Policy,” in Todd G. Shields, Jeannie M. Whayne, and Donald R. Kelley, eds., The Clinton Riddle: Perspectives on the Forty-Second President, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004), p. 170.
8. David M. Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China relations, 1989-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 60.
9. Stephen Herzog, “The Dilemma between Deterrence and Disarmament: Moving beyond the Perception of China as a Nuclear Threat,” BASIC Occasional Papers On International Security, No. 57, August 2008, p. 11,
10. “Conference on “U.S.-China Strategic Nuclear Dynamics,” Co-Organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), June 9-10, 2008,
11. RAND Corporation, and China Foundation for International & Strategic Studies (CFISS).