A Chinese naval vessel nearly collided with the U.S. cruiser USS Cowpens last week after another Chinese vessel had ordered the U.S. ship to stop, according to reports. Beijing appears intent upon establishing its dominance over the entire Asian littoral, from Japan in the north to Indonesia in the south, and compelling other states to recognize its claims.

Beijing has long claimed control over almost the entire South China Sea, based upon a variety of arguments, including a 1930s map that encompasses most of the area—this is the oft-mentioned “nine-dash line.” The incident involving the Cowpens is merely the most recent in a series of Chinese actions reinforcing its claims over the various seas adjacent to China.

  • In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft, resulting in the loss of the Chinese fighter and the U.S. aircraft being forced to land at Hainan Island.
  • In 2009, Chinese fishing boats and law enforcement vessels harassed a number of U.S. ships, most notably the USNS Impeccable, while they were engaging in hydrographic research in the area, outside Chinese territorial waters.
  • In 2011, an Indian naval vessel departing Vietnam was hailed by an unidentified source which claimed that it was operating in Chinese waters. This was followed by a pointed Chinese warning to India not to help Vietnam in developing offshore oil resources, reiterating Beijing’s view that no foreign companies or states should engage in oil exploration in the area without Chinese permission.

China, meanwhile, has rejected any arbitration to resolve the outstanding disputes, despite signing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In this most recent incident, the USS Cowpens had been conducting surveillance on the Chinese carrier Liaoning, which had departed its northern home port of Qingdao to operate in the South China Sea area. From the Chinese perspective, a U.S. Navy vessel engaging in intelligence gathering within Chinese-claimed waters clearly warranted a strong reaction, even if it meant risking a collision, so a Chinese amphibious ship apparently stopped directly in front of the U.S. Navy vessel, forcing it to alter course.

While China and its neighbors have overlapping claims to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles from their respective shores, China’s claims are unique. Beijing seems to be arguing not only for exclusive economic rights within the disputed waters, but essentially recognition of its right to administer and control those waters, including dictating what conduct is and is not allowed within them. This is in addition to its territorial claims over the various islands within the disputed area, including the Spratlys and Paracels.

Coupled with the announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), it appears likely that Beijing is warning the international community that it will brook no opposition to its maritime and airspace claims. As with the declaration of the ADIZ, China appears willing to accept heightened tensions in order to underscore its territorial claims, even at the risk of antagonizing major trading partners and key neighbors.