Thursday, March 31, 2016

Patrolling Disputed Waters, U.S. and China Jockey for Dominance

By HELENE COOPER, NYT
MARCH 30, 2016

ABOARD THE U.S.S. CHANCELLORSVILLE, in the South China Sea — The Navy cruiser was in disputed waters off the Spratly Islands when the threat warning sounded over the ship’s intercom: “Away the Snoopie team. ... Away the Snoopie team.”

As the sailors of the “Snoopie team” went on alert and took up positions throughout the ship, a Chinese naval frigate appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the cruiser Chancellorsville last week from the direction of Mischief Reef. More alarming, a Chinese helicopter that had taken off from the frigate was heading straight for the American cruiser.

“This is U.S. Navy warship on guard,” Ensign Anthony Giancana said into his radio from the ship’s bridge, trying to contact the helicopter. “Come up on Frequency 121.5 or 243.”

Ominously, there was no response.

Here in the hot azure waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands — which encompass reefs, banks and cays — the United States and China are jockeying for dominance in the Pacific. From Mischief Reef, where China is building a military base in defiance of claims by Vietnam and the Philippines, to Scarborough Shoal, where the Chinese are building and equipping outposts on disputed territory far from the mainland, the two naval forces are on an almost continuous state of alert.

Although the South China Sea stretches some 500 miles from mainland China, Beijing has claimed most of it. Tensions have risen sharply, and the topic is expected to dominate President Obama’s meeting in Washington this week with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

America’s goal is to keep the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, open to all maritime traffic. But administration officials are increasingly worried that tensions will only worsen if an arbitration panel in The Hague rules as expected in the coming months on a 2013 case brought by the Philippines, which has accused China of making an “excessive claim” to most of the sea.

At the Pentagon two weeks ago, the day before a meeting of Mr. Obama’s national security team to discuss Chinese expansion in the Pacific, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was talking with Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the United States Pacific Command, in the reception area of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s office.

(More here.)

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