China Tests Obama

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama conferred with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the Oval Office.  The two met less than a week after five Chinese vessels, in the words of the Pentagon, “shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity” to USNS Impeccable, an unarmed information-gathering ship, in international waters in the South China Sea. This incident, which occurred on March 8, followed hostile conduct against the USNS Victorious in international waters in the Yellow Sea on March 4 and harassment of the Impeccable on March 5 and 7.

Specifically, Chinese boats closed within feet of the Impeccable, blocked its path, and dropped obstacles in the water. The Chinese vessels even tried to separate a towed array from the Impeccable so that they could take away one of the Navy’s most advanced devices. Among other things, a Chinese boat dangerously crossed Victorious’s bow at night without warning. Chinese planes buzzed both American ships.

And what did the United States do in response to this extremely provocative behavior?  “President Obama and Foreign Minister Yang discussed the overall state of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, emphasizing the desire of both sides to strengthen cooperation and build a positive and constructive U.S.-China relationship,” the White House stated after their meeting.  “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.”

Avoiding future incidents should be everyone’s goal. Nonetheless, they have been occurring with distressing regularity since at least the beginning of the Bush administration. Ever since China’s downing of a Navy reconnaissance plane and the imprisonment of its crew in April 2001, there has been a series of troubling incidents in international waters bordering China. In September 2002, for instance, Chinese vessels and aircraft harassed the USNS Bowditch in the Yellow Sea. That incident was followed by aggressive action against the same vessel in September 2008, again in the Yellow Sea. There are other incidents that went unreported.

Analysts speculate as to Chinese intentions, but in a sense it really does not matter what Beijing is trying to accomplish. Its conduct is simply unacceptable. Washington, however, seeks to establish “dialogue” with China’s generals, admirals, and officials as if their belligerent acts are the result of the lack of contact.  It is simply ludicrous for the Obama White House to claim that the Chinese want to “strengthen cooperation” or build a “positive and constructive” relationship after engaging in such truculent behavior.