A crew member on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) in the South China Sea on March 8, 2009. Impeccable was conducting routine survey operations in international waters 75 miles south of Hainan Island when it was harassed by five Chinese vessels.

Two weeks ago the Obama Administration celebrated the first successful U.S.-China military-to-military talks of the new administration. Then this past Sunday, they found out relations with China were not always going to be so easy. Five Chinese ships harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters off the cost of Hainan Island forcing it take emergency defensive maneuvers. In the New York Post Heritage senior analyst Peter Brookes places the incident in context:

Beijing claims Impeccable was violating its sovereignty by conducting operations within China’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as identified under the United Nations’ 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty. Thing is, the treaty doesn’t give Beijing any right to veto activities outside their 12-mile territorial waters – and Impeccable was more than 60 miles beyond China’s national waters.

The treaty gives them a right to object to certain economic activities in their EEZ, such as drilling for oil/gas or fishing – but that right clearly doesn’t extend to noneconomic activities, including military operations, in international waters.

The new team needs to realize that the United States must exercise its rights in international airspace and waters as we have done for years, including the right to monitor China’s secretive and unprecedented military buildup – a significant worry to us and others.

Of course, given the White House’s softly-softly approach to international affairs, it’s no wonder the Chinese felt it was time to test our mettle after years of relatively quiet relations during the Bush administration. Imagine what they – and others, such as North Korea, Russia and Iran – have now concluded.