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Background Report on the USNS Impeccable Incident of March 8, 2009
Compiled by Ruchi Singh, Middlebury College, June 2009
-On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels reportedly “shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity” to an unarmed US ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, approximately 120 kilometers from Hainan Island, the Pentagon said.
While the US acknowledged that the ship was conducting submarine surveillance, it also asserted that they required no permission from the Chinese side. The Chinese administration protested that the Impeccable was on a spy mission, thus posing a threat to other ships in the area and violating not only Chinese, but also international law by conducting illegal survey activities too close to its coastline.
The location of this attack is strategic for both nations and possibly also a cause for the incident. The Chinese Navy has built a new base for its nuclear submarine fleet on Hainan Island, and the US Navy has acknowledged its interest in monitoring the activities of this base.
This incident is one of many examples which illustrate that US-China tensions are never too far below the surface. However, amongst rising tension between the two nations, the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama. The officials stressed the need for more frequent and efficient communication to avoid such military confrontation in the future.
MAPS AND VIDEOS:
Videos from the USNS Impeccable accosted by five Chinese vessels on March 8, 2009.
Location map of the Impeccable incident, Economist.
China’s Nuclear Base, UK-Telegraph
NEWS AND JOURNAL REPORTS:
Ji Guoxing, The Legality of the “Impeccable Incident”, China Security Vol. 5 No. 2 Spring 2009
Ji Guoxing is a professor and director of the Marine Policy Project of the Pacific Rim Research Centre at Shanghai Jiatong University. His article discusses the underlying international laws related to the controversy over the “Impeccable Incident,” including “international waters,” “territorial waters,” and “exclusive economic zones (EEZs).”
MacDonald, Mark, US Navy provoked South China Sea Incident, China says, New York Times, March 10, 2008
The lede: “China lashed out Tuesday at the United States, accusing a U.S. Navy ship of violating international law during a tense confrontation near a secret Chinese submarine base.” It also reports on US Pacific Command and Washington’s concern over Chinese military expansion.
Rosenberg, David Contested Borderlands of the South China Sea, BBC World Service, 21 April 2009
The Impeccable incident raises several volatile unresolved questions: What US military activities are permissible in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea? How does the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) govern territorial claims in these waters? Conclusion: “So far, there are no signs that the Impeccable incident will disrupt negotiations between China and the US to deal with the global financial crisis. It will remain a minor irritant as long as the US, the world's biggest debtor, finds itself indebted to China, the world's biggest creditor, and as long as China depends on access to US technology and consumer markets for its continued economic growth.”
The Red Hunter, A Challenge from China- Blog on the Impeccable Incident, March 2009
When Chinese ‘fishing trawlers’ harassed an unarmed US Navy ship, the USNS Impeccable on March 8, 2009 it sparked debate about US dealings with its political issues. This blog provides commentary on Chinese objectives and US responses along with recent updates and additional details about the confrontations.
Valencia, Mark, The Impeccable Incident- Truth and Consequences, China Security Vol. 5 No. 1 Winter 2009
Mark Valencia is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia. He examines the incident in the context of US-China politics and its consequences for US-China military relations.
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