HONG KONG — Ahead of the first meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, scheduled to take place in London next week, China has backed down, temporarily at least, in its dispute with the United States over whether U.S. Navy ships require Chinese permission before conducting activities in the South China Sea.

According to the U.S., an American surveillance vessel, the Impeccable, was surrounded and harassed by five Chinese ships on March 8 while it was operating in international waters. Beijing asserted that the American navy needed its permission to operate within China’s exclusive economic zone.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states are entitled to a 200-mile (321 km) exclusive economic zone within which they enjoy “sovereignty rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or nonliving, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil.”

The coastal state’s territorial sea extends only 12 miles (19 km) and these EEZ rights are purely economic. So, China is asserting a claim that, on the face, is not supported by the convention.

From the variety of Chinese ships deployed — a naval ship, a fisheries patrol vessel, an oceanographic administration patrol vessel and two trawlers — it seems that the operation was coordinated at a high level of the government.

One objective, in all likelihood, was the seizure of the ship’s Surtass sonar array — a submarine detection system being towed. The incident occurred about 75 miles (120 km) south of Hainan, where China operates a submarine base.

China accused the U.S. of having violated international and Chinese law and urged it “to take effective measures to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future.” Yet, the Impeccable continues to operate in the area and the U.S. has dispatched a destroyer, armed with torpedoes and missiles, into the vicinity to protect the surveillance ship.

Presumably, from China’s standpoint, the presence of the destroyer constitutes a violation of its sovereignty. However, Beijing has evidently decided that the U.S.-China summit, being held during the Group of 20 meeting to tackle the global financial crisis, must take precedence.

This Chinese position was made clear by the official China Daily, which ran an article on its front page last Friday declaring, “The Chinese military is ready to call an end to the standoff with the U.S. in the South China Sea.” Citing naval sources, it said, “Top commanders do not have plans to increase the military presence in the South China Sea following a confrontation earlier this month.”

Both sides want to play down the incident. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was in Washington to prepare for the upcoming summit, and after meeting him, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that both countries “agreed that we should work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.”

The top U.S. commander for Asia and the Pacific, Adm. Timothy Keating, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the incident “is certainly a troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner and they’re not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior.”

Interestingly, at about the same time that the U.S. sent a destroyer into the South China Sea, China announced the dispatch of its largest and most modern patrol ship, the Yuzheng 311, into the same general area. But the mission of that vessel is to deal not with the U.S. but with the countries of Southeast Asia, with which China has multiple territorial disputes.

China recently protested against the passage of a law by Manila that defined as Philippine territory a number of islands also claimed by Beijing. It was after this that China sent the patrol boat into disputed areas in the South China Sea to “strengthen fishery administration.”

Subsequently, Wu Zhuang, fisheries department director, was quoted as saying that additional patrol boats would be sent into the area to “protect China’s rights and interests.”

Not surprisingly, some countries in Southeast Asia feel that China is flexing its muscles, although China’s dispatch of fishery patrol boats rather than navy vessels indicates that Beijing is attempting to appear less threatening.

Still, it does not escape the notice of Southeast Asian countries that China is backing down in its confrontation with the U.S. while strengthening its position vis-a-vis smaller countries of the region.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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