Clash will not have major impact, say analysts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am

Sunday's confrontation between Chinese and US navy ships off Hainan Island reminded many of a military plane collision in 2001, but analysts said yesterday that history would not be repeated in this case because circumstances had changed.

With a more intense Sino-US relationship that has expanded substantially over the past eight years, and increasing interdependence in the face of the global financial crisis, the incident would not have a major impact on ties between the two countries, the analysts said.

But one tricky issue for China is that it would be hard to argue about the confrontation with the United States given that Washington has yet to ratify the international United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

'This will only lead to endless debate because each side thinks they are right,' said Zhang Liying, deputy director of the faculty of international law at Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law.

Under the convention, maritime areas within 200 nautical miles of a country's territorial border are still classified as part of its exclusive economic zone.

Vessels from other countries are allowed to cruise through these areas but activities like collecting data are not allowed, Professor Zhang said.

Despite the potential for prolonged bickering over the incident, Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University's Centre for American Studies, said it would do little to hamper Sino-US ties.

Many argued that the naval confrontation was similar to the collision of military jets in 2001 that led to the death of pilot Wang Wei. Wang's fighter jet crashed with a US spy plane in international air space off Hainan, setting off a diplomatic spat between Beijing and the newly-inaugurated administration of George W. Bush.

Bilateral ties were strained as Mr Bush refused then Chinese president Jiang Zemin's demand for an apology.

Professor Shi said the latest incident would have less of an impact on Sino-US relations because of the different circumstances and international context. 'Both countries will contain the incident's impact and stay focused on co-operation on other fronts, such as economics and trade,' he said. 'Washington still needs China's co-operation and money to deal with the financial crisis.'

But Yu Wanli, associate professor at Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said the incident was a subtle sign that the two countries still lacked fundamental confidence in each other despite the greater co-operation.

'The hawkish US military could be sending a signal that it is not too interested in enhancing co-operation with its Chinese counterpart, despite Mr Obama's proposal to improve military dialogue,' he said. 'This shows that although bilateral ties have grown much closer, it may just be due to pragmatic reasons. The two countries still don't trust each other.'

High-seas drama

This photo released by the US Navy shows Chinese trawlers in front of the USNS Impeccable, which forced the surveillance vessel to a halt in the South China Sea on Sunday


Launched: 1998

Length: 85 metres

Maximum width: 29 metres

Dead weight: 2,571 tonnes

Full displacement: 5,380 tonnes

Propulsion: Diesel-electric

Mission: Detect and track undersea threats using low-frequency sonar