U.S. Defense Department says China harassed Navy ships
The U.S. Defense Department said five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered close to the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea on Sunday.
The T-AGOS oceanographic ship was 70 miles south of Hainan Island conducting routine operations in international waters when the ships approached, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The ship is operated with a civilian crew for the Military Sealift Command by Maersk Line Ltd. of Norfolk, Va., an arm of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group that provides U.S.-flag transportation, ship management and technical services to government and commercial customers.
The Military Sealift Command said on its Web site that there 25 contract mariners and 25 military personnel on the ship.
'We view these as unprofessional maneuvers by the Chinese vessels and violations under international law to operate with due regard for the rights and safety of other lawful users of the ocean,' Whitman said.
On Tuesday China charged the ship with conducting activities in China’s special economic zone in the South China Sea.
“China has lodged a solemn representation to the United States as the USNS Impeccable conducted activities in China’s special economic zone in the South China Sea without China’s permission,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu in a report from Xinghua, China’s official news agency. “We demand that the United States put an immediate stop to related activities and take effective measures to prevent similar acts from happening.”
Whitman at the Pentagon said the incident began as the ships surrounded the Impeccable and two craft closed to within 50 feet. 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.
Crewmen aboard the Impeccable used fire hoses to spray one of the vessels as a protective measure. The Chinese crewmembers disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet.
The Chinese vessels dropped pieces of wood in the water directly in the Impeccable's path, and two of the ships stopped directly in the U.S. vessel's path, forcing it to stop.
Whitman said the Chinese used poles in an attempt to snag the Impeccable's towed acoustic array sonars. Impeccable's master used bridge-to-bridge radio circuits to inform the Chinese ships in a friendly manner that it was leaving the area and requested a safe path to navigate.
'These are dangerous close maneuvers that these vessels engaged in,' Whitman said.
The incident was the culmination of earlier harassment. A Chinese patrol vessel shined a high-intensity spotlight March 4 on the USNS Victorious operating in the Yellow Sea 125 miles from China's coast. Chinese maritime aircraft 'buzzed' the ship 12 times March 5.
A Chinese frigate crossed the bow of the Impeccable at a range of about 100 yards March 5. Maritime aircraft buzzed the ship after that incident.
Another Chinese ship challenged the Impeccable over bridge-to-bridge radio March 7, calling its operations illegal and directing the ship to leave the area or 'suffer the consequences,' officials said.
The Impeccable is one of six surveillance ships that gather underwater acoustical data, Whitman said. U.S. ships routinely operate in the area.