China navy officers harangue U.S. over sea spat

 @ibtimes
on March 11 2009 10:13 AM

BEIJING (Reuters) - Senior Chinese navy officers poured scorn on the United States in the wake of a weekend naval confrontation, with one saying the Americans are villains crying foul as fallout between the two giants simmered.

In comments carried by the official China News Service, Chinese officers repeated their government's view that a U.S. naval vessel had violated the country's sovereignty during an encounter with Chinese boats in the South China Sea on Sunday.

Five Chinese boats jostled with the U.S. Navy survey vessel in waters off China's southern Hainan island, a major base for Beijing's expanding navy.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said the confrontation showed China's increasingly aggressive military stance in the South China Sea.

But Beijing pressed its claim the U.S. vessel was in the wrong.

The Americans are villains crying foul first, said Zhang Deshun, a Chinese navy deputy chief of staff, the China News Service reported late on Tuesday.

The U.S. side has twisted the facts. The U.S. survey ship was operating in China's exclusive economic zone on its continental shelf. Our vessels were just going about normal business ... This was itself harming China's sovereignty.

Chinese newspapers and websites played down the spat, apparently to avoid any diplomatic fallout.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reissued on its website on Wednesday a statement by spokesman Ma Zhaoxu at a briefing on Tuesday, but dropped a phrase about the Americans confusing black and white.

A Communist Party commissar in the navy, Wu Huayang, told the news agency the incident had been stirred up by the U.S..

There have been no signs the fracas will derail broader political and economic negotiations while Washington and Beijing are preoccupied with the global financial crisis.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is visiting Washington to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama at the G20 summit next month.

But the tough comments from China's navy suggest Beijing is hardening its stance on claims to stretches of the South China Sea.

According to international sea laws and rules, in this (exclusive economic) zone the ships of various countries can merely pass through freely, said Wu, the commissar.

Chinese officials have said the U.S. vessel was carrying out illegal surveying activities.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told Congress the Chinese had become more assertive in staking claims to international waters around economic zones and were more military, aggressive, forward-looking than we saw a couple years before in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

The United States accused China of harassing the U.S. ship, the Impeccable, in international waters off Hainan, site of a Chinese submarine base and other naval installations.

The Pentagon has said the American ship, an unarmed ocean surveillance vessel, was conducting routine operations in the South China Sea 75 miles south of Hainan.

But China insists the Impeccable's operations were neither routine nor legal.

The Impeccable was specifically designed to deploy two underwater listening devices to augment the Navy's anti-submarine warfare capability, according to www.globalsecurity.org.

If people are loitering outside your bamboo fence and the owner goes out to check on things, and then they say you've violated their rights, what's the sense in that? said Jin Mao, a Chinese vice admiral, according to the news agency.

(Additional reporting by Yu Le and Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jerry Norton)

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