Wednesday, March 11, 2009

U.S. Will Continue to Sail in International Waters, Official Says

By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service

The United States will continue to sail ships on missions in international waters, a Defense Department official said here today.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the March 8 incident in the South China Sea in which five Chinese ships surrounded the USNS Impeccable -- an unarmed Military Sealift Command vessel – won't hinder the United States from using international sea lanes.

The United States protested the Chinese activity to China's foreign ministry in Beijing and to the defense attache at the Chinese Embassy here. China rejected the U.S. protests today, and maintains the Impeccable violated international law by sailing in the area.

The ship is an ocean surveillance vessel and was mapping the sea bottom when the Chinese ships approached. The Chinese ships included a Chinese navy intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers.

Two ships approached within 50 feet of the Impeccable before the American civilian crew used fire hoses to challenge them. One of the Chinese ships approached within 25 feet of the American ship. Two Chinese trawlers then stopped directly in front of the Impeccable as it attempted to leave the area.

The Chinese allege the American ship was operating illegally in China's Economic Exclusion Zone. China claims a 125-mile zone.

"Our activities were in international waters, and we will continue to operate in international waters as appropriate," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday. "Our ships obviously operate fairly regularly in international waters where these incidents took place. We're going to continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around them."

The area is about 70 miles south of Hainan Island. In 2001, two Chinese fighter aircraft challenged a U.S. Navy EP-3 patrol plane in the area. There was a collision between one of the Chinese fighters and the P-3, killing the Chinese pilot. The P-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, and the Chinese detained the 24-member crew of the American patrol plane for 12 days.