Alarming reports in the Navy Times and the Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun state that the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk battle group was confronted by Chinese warships as it transited the Taiwan Strait after being turned away from Hong Kong in November. According to the Navy Times:
The carrier strike group encountered Chinese destroyer Shenzhen and a Song-class sub in the strait on Nov. 23, causing the group to halt and ready for battle, as the Chinese vessels also stopped amid the 28-hour confrontation.
The Yomiuri account gives more detail:
The Kitty Hawk observed the Chinese submarine, and after a U.S. antisubmarine patrol aircraft confirmed the Chinese submarine was keeping pace with the U.S. carrier by reducing speed and stopping, the U.S. vessel launched an aircraft to watch for possible hostile behavior by the Chinese Navy.
The ultimate source of both accounts is the China Times, a respectable Taipei newspaper. The more detailed Chinese language version, written by three reporters, quotes one unidentified “authoritative source.” and another “source” for the story, and speculates on the origins and significance of the encounter.
What are we to make of this? If the report is true then we have a very serious problem. Rather than becoming friendly in response to American friendliness, the Chinese are (mis)-reading us as weak and trying to frighten us. But we also have an explanation for the sudden four day trip to Beijing by Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, just completed. The meeting was reportedly amicable, but shed no new light at all on the mysterious closure of Hong Kong last year.
Afterwards, the Admiral had some uncharacteristically feisty words for the Chinese. “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. It is international water. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever and wherever we choose.” If the story is completely false, we have to ask who falsified it and for what reason. The China Times takes a pro-Beijing editorial stance. How this story would help Beijing is difficult to see.
My own reading is this: the story probably has some basis. I say this because it fits into a worrying pattern of increasingly erratic and hostile Chinese behavior towards American forces in Asia. I don’t pretend to know what the origins of this pattern are. But it represents a clear shift and a worrying one–and instead of making nice, we should be paying attention.