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Sino-US sea standoff appears to have ended
By Cui Xiaohuo (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-03-20 07:28

The Chinese military is ready to call an end to the standoff with the United States in the South China Sea after diplomatic efforts have reduced tensions, defense sources said on condition of anonymity.

Top commanders do not have plans to increase the military presence in the South China Sea following a confrontation earlier this month between a US spy ship and five Chinese vessels, naval sources told China Daily, also on condition of anonymity.

The US defense chief said on Wednesday that diplomatic exchanges since the confrontation would prevent a similar incident to that of March 8.

Military analysts agreed that it is time to leave the dispute behind and move on with more important issues concerning Sino-US relations.

"It is time to call an end to it," said Li Jie, a senior naval researcher at the Chinese Navy's Military Academy.

"It might be that the US military wanted to flex its muscles, but the Barack Obama administration managed to bring the situation under control for the good of both countries."

Zhang Tuosheng, director of the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said that neither Beijing nor Washington wants to "blow it up (the confrontation)".

"This is because both sides have so many areas they share interests in," Zhang told China Daily.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also played down the risk of new military challenges.

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Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that he also does not believe "aggressive" Chinese behavior against US Navy surveillance vessels in the South China Sea suggests Beijing wants to force the US Pacific fleet from the region.

The USNS Impeccable, a US 7th Fleet surveillance ship designed to search for underwater threats including submarines, was about 120 km south of China's southern-most province of Hainan when the standoff with the Chinese vessels started.

Chinese naval officers said the US vessel was spying and hunting for data related to China's submarines within Chinese maritime territory and exclusive economic zone.

The US Navy claimed the incident was the latest in a series of "increasingly aggressive" encounters between US surveillance ships and Chinese craft including naval ships, patrol boats and surveillance planes.

The incident was the most serious episode between the two nations since 2001 when a US spy plane collided midair with a Chinese fighter jet near the same area.

But Gates said: "I don't think that they're trying to push the 7th Fleet out of that area. And I hope, based on the diplomatic exchanges that have taken place since the aggressive acts against the Impeccable ... that there won't be a repetition of this."

That would make it unnecessary for the US Navy to assign more warship escorts to its surveillance vessels, he said.

The US Navy last week dispatched one of the world's most advanced destroyers to the area to escort the Impeccable, which continues to be in the vicinity.

Gates yesterday also announced the nomination of Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Fleet, to replace Timothy Keating as the commander of US Pacific command.

Chinese analysts said it is a routine posting and that Willard has experience in the Asia-Pacific region.

Reuters and Zhang Haizhou contributed to the story