A potential conflict was brewing last night in the South China Sea after President Obama dispatched heavily armed American destroyers to the scene of a naval standoff between the US and China at the weekend.
Mr Obama’s decision to send an armed escort for US surveillance ships in the area follows the aggressive and co-ordinated manoeuvres of five Chinese boats on Sunday. They harassed and nearly collided with an unarmed American vessel.
Washington accused the Chinese ships of moving directly in front of the US Navy surveillance ship Impeccable, forcing its crew to take emergency action, and to deploy a high-pressure water hose to deter the Chinese ships. Formal protests were lodged with Beijing after the incident.
On a day that Mr Obama and his senior officials met the Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, in Washington, Beijing showed no sign of backing down. Its military chiefs accused the unarmed US Navy ship of being on a spying mission.
The US keeps a close eye on China’s arsenal, including its expanding fleet of submarines in the area. Washington says that the confrontation occurred in international waters, but Beijing claims nearly all the South China Sea as its own, putting it in conflict with five other nations that have claims over different parts of the waters.
The episode complicated fragile military relations between the US and China, which appeared to have improved after the two held defence talks in Beijing last month.
Mr Obama yesterday urged more military dialogue with China to avoid similar incidents after talks with Mr Yang, the White House said. “The President also stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of military-to-military dialogue,” it said.
A hotline was established between the Chinese Defence Ministry and the Pentagon in April last year, but it was not used during or after Sunday’s standoff, defence officials said. The US Government immediately protested to Chinese authorities after the incident, about 75 miles south of Hainan Island.
Beijing has rejected the US account and demanded that the United States cease what it calls illegal activities in the South China Sea. The Chinese maintain the area is part of the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Washington insists that the area is part of international waters and that US ships have a legal right to operate there.
From now on our nation will belong to the community of the peace-loving and freedom-loving nations of the world and work courageously and industriously to foster its own civilization and well-being and at the same time to promote world peace and freedom. Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up. Our revolution has won the sympathy and acclaim of the people of all countries. We have friends all over the world - Mao Zedong, 1949