Return to

July 18, 2013
Notes from the Pentagon

New naval harassment in Asia
A U.S. intelligence-gathering ship was harassed by a Chinese security ship last month in an incident that analysts say indicates Beijing is stepping up aggressive maritime encounters toward the U.S. Navy in the Asia-Pacific.

A Chinese website, Sinocism, posted photographs of what it described as a “fierce confrontation” between the USNS Impeccable, an electronic spy ship, and a China Maritime Surveillance ship.

The Web posting said the Chinese ship videotaped the encounter and posted it online as a way to “expose the activity.” Photos of the Impeccable indicate they were taken on June 21.

The Chinese ship also warned the Navy vessel it was operating “illegally” despite being in undisclosed international waters. The Chinese also said the ship was not a “noncombatant” ship.

“The American vessel USNS Impeccable is far from being a noncombatant,” the Chinese posting stated. “The Impeccable is one of five American surveillance ships equipped with passive and active low-frequency towed-array sonar, and it is effective at detecting submarines, directly serving the American naval fleet by doing so.”

The Navy is stepping up surveillance of China’s submarine force, which has expanded by more than 50 submarines in the past two decades.

The Sinocism posting stated that the U.S. ship was within 100 nautical miles of the Chinese coast and that China had not granted permission for it to operate in that region.

The Chinese photos appear to have been taken by a cellphone camera from a distance of about 10,000 yards. Analysts suggested the Chinese were engaged in long-distance countersurveillance, thus raising questions about Chinese claims of a “fierce” encounter.

A video of the confrontation posted on another website shows a Chinese security officer on ship speaking into a microphone and demanding that the U.S. ship must first get China’s permission to be in the area.

An unidentified U.S. official was then heard in the radio message as saying the Impeccable was operating legally in international waters. (The video can be viewed at

The last time the Impeccable was harassed by the Chinese was in March 2009 when five Chinese ships shadowed the surveillance vessel and sprayed it with water in what the Pentagon at the time said was a “dangerous” effort to force the ship out of its operating zone. Another spy ship, the Victorious, also was harassed several years ago.

A U.S. Pacific Command spokesman would not address the U.S.-China ship incident. Capt. Chris Sims, the spokesman, referred Inside the Ring to comments made last week by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command.

Asked about an increase in Chinese naval activity around Guam and Hawaii, in apparent retaliation for U.S. naval spying on China, Adm. Locklear said the United States and China disagree on U.N. definitions of controlled waters.

“We believe, the U.S. position is that those activities are less constrained than what the Chinese believe,” the four-star admiral said in a meeting with reporters July 11.

Adm. Locklear said economic exclusion zones cover “most of the major sea lines of communication” that are vital for trade and shipping.

Asked about earlier Chinese military provocations and if the Chinese today are less provocative, Adm. Locklear said, “I would say it’s not provocative certainly. I’d say that in the Asia-Pacific, in the areas that are closer to the Chinese homeland, that we have been able to conduct operations around each other in a very professional and increasingly professional manner.”

“Some of this had to do with the lessons that were learned a number of years ago by some of the unfortunate encounters,” he added.

The U.S. military is holding an “ongoing dialogue” with the Chinese military with the aim of creating “rules of the road,” as China’s navy expands and operates farther from its coast, Adm. Locklear said.

“The U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific’s not going anywhere,” he said. “So we have to manage our ability to operate around each other. And I think that’s a doable thing.”

Pentagon officials are worried that the anti-U.S. views of Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will have a negative impact on the U.S. defense and military establishment, a defense official close to policymakers said.

The official said there is serious concern within the Pentagon about what will happen under the new “Samantha Power doctrine,” if she is confirmed for the U.N. post.

“People are shuddering over its implication” for the Department of Defense, the official said.

The official noted that during her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Ms. Power did not back down from her past contention that the United States was guilty of “war crimes,” apparently carried out by omission or commission by the U.S. government and military.

“DOD senior officials believe she is very influential with the left wing of the administration, so they are following closely what senators are asking and her replies,” the official said.

Ms. Power supports humanitarian intervention, including aid to Syrian rebels. She was the key policy driver behind the “leading-from-behind” policy used to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that has left the oil-rich North African nation unstable and facing a growing problem with Islamist militias.

Pentagon officials are concerned there will be policy disputes between Ms. Power and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who opposes all U.S. interventions and argues that there is no budget for military intervention because of the Pentagon’s current funding crunch.

Ms. Power came under sharp questioning during her Senate hearing Wednesday from Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.

Mr. Rubio asked the Ireland-born Ms. Power about a 2003 article she wrote calling for a “historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored or permitted by the United States.”

After repeating several times how much she likes the United States, Ms. Power then explained that she was referring to the lack of response by the Clinton in administration to the 1994 Rwanda tribal genocide.

Mr. Rubio pressed her to explain what crimes the United States had committed or sponsored in Rwanda.

Ms. Power sidestepped the question, saying only: “I think this is the greatest country on Earth. I — we have nothing to apologize for.”

“But do you believe the United States has committed or sponsored crimes?” Mr. Rubio asked.

She repeated that she believed the United States is the greatest country on Earth.

Ms. Power did no repudiate her demand for an accounting of U.S. crimes but suggested she “would absolutely” have stated it differently.

President Obama last month dismissed any suggestion that he should get involved in bringing Edward Snowden to justice for disclosing top-secret National Security Agency programs and documents obtained while he worked as a computer technician contractor for the agency.

The president appeared to be signaling to the U.S. and international press that dealing with the illegal release of U.S. secrets and getting a leaker to face prosecution was something below his paygrade.

“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Mr. Obama said June 27 at a news conference in Senegal during his weeklong trip to Africa.

“I’m not going to have one case with a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system.”

That apparently changed Friday when Russian President Vladimir Putin called Mr. Obama to discuss the Snowden case.

The White House “readout” of the call said the two leaders spoke about “the status of Mr. Edward Snowden” among other issues.

Asked if the president asked Mr. Putin to return Mr. Snowden, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden did not answer directly.

“Our message to every country continues to be that there is a legal basis to expel Edward Snowden back to the U.S., and we want to see that happen without delay,” she said.

Russia made clear on Wednesday that it would not return the renegade NSA contractor, who has requested temporary asylum in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, however, said relations should not be upset by “squabbles between special services.”

“We have our own goals as regards development of Russian-American relations,” he said.

“We won’t behave the way other countries do. We are an independent country and we have an independent foreign policy.”

Return to