The US has long maintained that it has complete freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace. That is, when nations claim certain waters outside the traditional 12 mile boundary as territorial waters, the US very rarely acknowledges that claim, and indeed will often conduct operations in those waters and airspace to emphasize the point. One example was the “Line of Death” that Libya claimed in the Gulf of Sidra. The US conducted air and sea operations in those waters on a regular basis. When the Libyans reacted with armed force, the US reacted violently.
Now comes word the Chinese are becoming obnoxious again, this time harrassing the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. China in many ways regards the SCS as their back yard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them claim them as territorial waters, but they certainly think of it as their spere of influence.
The Impeccable is a ship owned by the Navy, but operated by civilians, as opposed to being a warship. Her mission is to gather accoustic intelligence on submarines. It may be that the Chinese chose this moment to interfere with her in order to frustrate some particular intel gathering opportunity. Or they may just have felt like being a pain. It is hard to tell.
Of course, this has shades of the incident in 2001 when Chinese fighters harrassed a US Navy EP-3E conducting operations over the South China Sea. When things got out of hand and the fighter collided with the US plane, the EP-3 crew had to make an emergency landing at Hainan Island, which is sovreign Chinese soil. And the Chinese of course, made getting both the crew, and later the EP-3 itself, a major hassle.
So, is China just being its usual obnoxious self, or are they testing the new President?