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.
And it is wrong to suggest that incidents can be avoided in the future if we only increase the level of communication or its frequency. We have had formal and informal military relations with China for decades, and now there is even a brand new mil-to-mil hotline connecting the United States to China. So it is an attack on common sense for the Pentagon to claim that “face-to-face dialogue in Beijing and in Washington will go a long way to clearing up any misunderstanding about this incident.” The problem is not that we don’t talk to the Chinese enough or that we misunderstand them. It is that they are hostile.
And we should not be surprised that they are. After the April 2001 incident, caused by reckless flying of a Chinese fighter pilot, it was the Bush administration that issued an apology. Moreover, Washington responded to Beijing’s demand and offered to pay for the room and board of the crew imprisoned for 11 days in China. Moreover, President Bush said nothing in public after the Chinese harassed the Bowditch on several occasions. Beijing obviously sensed American weakness and kept on pushing, hence the Impeccable and Victorious incidents.
Is it fair to draw a straight line from April 2001 to March 2009? Let’s look at another series of events. In January 1968, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, a reconnaissance vessel, in international waters in the Sea of Japan. One crew member was killed and several wounded during the seizure. And during the next eleven months, the North Koreans beat Pueblo crewmembers with lumber, burned them against radiators, and kicked out their teeth. Some sailors were crippled and others almost blinded. The Johnson administration issued an apology to obtain their release. In April 1969, the North Koreans shot down an unarmed Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan. All 31 crewmembers were killed, resulting in the largest loss of U.S. servicemen in a single incident during the Cold War.
Doing nothing after the loss of the plane was the safe play and President Nixon received praise for restraint, but Henry Kissinger, national security adviser at the time, admitted that Washington’s response to the shootdown was “weak, indecisive, and disorganized.” As he wrote about the American failure to respond, “I believe we paid for it in many intangible ways, in demoralized friends and emboldened adversaries.”
Kissinger is right — we have emboldened our adversaries. The Obama administration has filed a protest over the Impeccable incident, but the Chinese know the United States is not serious. If we were, we would have canceled the meeting with Yang Jiechi or even sent the Chinese ambassador in Washington packing, putting him on the first flight from Dulles to Beijing.
Because we have failed to make the point, we know there will be other incidents. And there are other things we know, if history is any guide. We know, for example, that American lives will be lost, that the Chinese will be the aggressors, and that Washington created the conditions for the tragedy that could have been avoided.