China continues to aggressively confront American ships and aircraft that come close to Chinese ships in international waters. The latest incident was on December 5th when a Chinese destroyer cut in front of an American cruiser (the USS Cowpens) which was observing the new Chinese aircraft carrier. The Chinese ship risked a collision as it moved to within a hundred meters of the U.S. cruiser. This sort of aggressiveness has not been experienced by American warships since the Cold War when Russian warships would risk collision in what American sailors came to call "Chicken Of The Sea."
The Chinese are also harassing American intelligence operations off the Chinese coast. For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships. U.S. Navy survey ship operating in international waters often find themselves approached, especially at night, by Chinese fishing boats that deliberately get in the way. In some cases the harassment includes Chinese warships and naval patrol aircraft as well.
All this is reminiscent of Cold War incidents, usually involving Russian ships harassing American ships by moving very close, or even on a collision course. This was all for the purpose of interfering with U.S. intelligence operations, especially those off the Russian coast. Earlier in the Cold War Russian warplanes would fire on American intelligence gathering aircraft, shooting some of them down. This sort of thing declined when the U.S. quietly informed the Russians that American warships and combat aircraft would aggressively return fire. By the end of the 1960s, this aggressive activity diminished to the point where it was considered a minor nuisance and even that was eliminated by a 1972 treaty. The same pattern is playing out with the Chinese but for the last few years the Chinese have continued to protest this intelligence gathering activity so close (up to 22 kilometers from Chinese territory, an area that is considered “territorial waters”).
The most troublesome intelligence gathering for the Chinese were the oceanic survey vessels. These USNS ships, with mainly civilian crews, use sonar and other sensors to study the ocean floor, and collect information on anything else going on down there (including submarines in the area.) The Chinese have been very upset that the U.S. was doing this so close to their new submarine base on Hainan Island. The U.S. has five of these USNS survey ships, and they are all spending a lot of time in the western Pacific. These ships often operate with the obvious cover of carrier aircraft or American warships, in case the Chinese forget the warnings. But this has not completely stopped the aggressive Chinese provocations.
All of this is taking place when U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters. International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. Moreover, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there, and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has claims that USNS ships are conducting illegal espionage. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.
In July 2012 China tried a new strategy by declaring that most of the 3.5 million square kilometers South China Sea had become Sansha, the latest Chinese city. The area China claims is as part of Sansha comprises over two million square kilometers of largely open ocean and a few hundred tiny islands and reefs, many of which are only above water during low tide. Sansha is administered from one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island). The U.S. government responded by asking that China obey international law regarding territorial waters and the EEZ. In response to the American reminder, the Chinese called the U.S. a troublemaker. China has not backed down, but did not become aggressive again until November 23rd when China claimed control over large areas of international air space via an expanded ADIZ (air defense identification zone). China wants all military and commercial aircraft in these new ADIZs to ask permission from China before entering. Local nations responded by sending in military aircraft without telling China, but warning their commercial aircraft operators to cooperate because it is considered impractical to provide military air cover for all the commercial traffic. China sees this as a victory, despite the obvious intention of other nations to continue sending military aircraft through the ADIZ unannounced and despite whatever threats China makes. In response to that China has begun running combat air patrols through the ADIZ and apparently intends to try to intimidate some of the smaller countries defying the ADIZ.
All this is not some sudden Chinese effort to extend its control over large ocean areas. For over three decades China has been carrying out a long-term strategy that involves first leaving buoys (for navigation purposes, to assist Chinese fishermen) in the disputed water, followed by temporary shelters (again, for the Chinese fishermen) on islets or reefs that are above water but otherwise uninhabited. If none of the other claimants to this piece of ocean remove the buoys or shelters, China builds a more permanent structure “to aid passing Chinese fishermen”. This shelter will be staffed by military personnel who will, of course, have radio, radar, and a few weapons. If no one attacks this mini-base China will expand it and warn anyone in the area that the base is Chinese territory and any attempts to remove it will be seen as an act of war. The Vietnamese tried to get physical against these Chinese bases in 1974 and 1988 and were defeated both times in brief but brutal air and sea battles. The Chinese will fight, especially if they are certain of victory. All of this could end badly, with a major war no one wants. That’s how it happens.