China Plays “Chicken” With Obama

Is China trying to test another new US president?

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When Joe Biden warned that President Obama would be "tested" early in his presidency by an international foe, many scoffed and called it a gaffe. But he might have been right; and it's happening right now.

The presidency always involves on the job training. Each new occupant has to deal with crises small and large. Barack Obama has come into office knowing that Iraq and Afghanistan are both on his agenda. 

He's also had the good fortune -- if one can call it that -- of having George W. Bush's example to guide him one way or another in developing strategies for those countries.

He might want to also check Lexis Nexis, Google and TV footage of another foreign policy crisis in the early days of the Bush administration. He might learn that the foreign policy "test" could well turn out to be Chinese rather than Iranian, Pakistani or Afghani.

Beijing appears to want to stage an early episode of "chicken" with the Obama administration as Chinese boats continue to harass the USS Impeccable, a Navy mapping ship,  in international waters near China

A Pentagon accounting of the confrontation documents the actions of the startled and cornered American crew as a Chinese vessel closed to within 25 feet. Pictures released by the Navy give a sense of the surreal scene: The Chinese mariners had stripped to their underwear following the blast by the Impeccable's fire hoses.

"[Pentagon spokesman Bryan] Whitman called that 'immature,' and said the confrontation was the most aggressive of a series of incidents recently in the same area.

Impeccable's crew radioed to tell the Chinese ships that it was leaving the area and requested a safe path to navigate, the Pentagon said.

But two of the Chinese ships stopped directly ahead of the Impeccable, forcing it to an emergency stop, the U.S. account said. The Chinese also dropped pieces of wood in the water in Impeccable's path.

The incident came just a week after China and the U.S. resumed military-to-military consultations following a five-month suspension over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. And it came as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechiwas is due in Washington to meet with U.S. officials.

'We're going to continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around that,' White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said."

This is reminiscent of the crash-landing  of a US Navy surveillance plane April 1, 2001 in the same general area of the South China Sea.  The US plane collided with a Chinese fighter.  After the US plane landed on Hainan Island, the Chinese government accused the Americans of spying and of causing the initial collision.  They kept the crew detained for nearly two weeks.  

For an administration that gained a shoot-first, ask-questions-later reputation post-9/11, the Bushies showed admirable restraint (too much for some conservative quarters).  

Obama had better study this history well as he figures out how to deal with a Beijing that may be preparing another "testing" for another new president. 

Obviously, the current stakes are even higher. Exactly how harsh do you get with a nation that owns hundreds of billions of your debt -- and you're hoping will take more before the current economic crisis is over?

Good question. This incident may be about more than simple "harassment" on the high seas.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.  

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