The confrontation last week between a U.S. ship and five Chinese naval craft was just the latest of many low-grade military clashes in the South China Sea, the site of numerous territorial disputes. It was eerily similar to the "Hainan Island" incident in 2001, when a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 jet collided above Hainan, killing China's Wang Wei. U.S. aviators later said Wang had been notorious for his "cowboy maneuvers"; once he flew so close that a U.S. EP-3 crew photographed him holding up a piece of paper with his e-mail address on it. Then-head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Dennis Blair protested to Beijing. "It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air," he said.
But both sides could play the taunting game. Years before his death, Wang was instructed to intercept a U.S. surveillance plane and "force it away," according to the Chinese magazine Navy and Merchant Ships. Drawing close, Wang saw the U.S. crew decked out in Santa Claus hats and giving him the finger. "In the West the Santa Claus hat is a happy symbol," the magazine said. "But it seems arrogant for pilots wearing such hats to hover near another country's airspace."
Such cocky behavior isn't in the flight manuals, but it's reminiscent of the creative rough-and-tumble that characterized U.S.-Russian Cold War encounters. The idea was to harass without harming. Back then, American and Soviet air crew were known to "moon" each other by pressing their bare buttocks against their aircraft's porthole windows. Which may shed some light on a bizarre detail from last week's incident, in which the Pentagon charged that the Chinese ships maneuvered dangerously close to the USNS Impeccable, which happened to be hunting submarines. The Impeccable sprayed one Chinese ship with fire hoses, prompting its crew to strip down to their underwear as their craft veered within 25 feet. This confrontation had been preceded by increasingly bold behavior on the part of People's Liberation Army ships and planes. "They seem to be militarily more aggressive," said Obama's new National Intelligence director, Dennis Blair—who had said virtually the same thing of the PLA at the time of the Hainan incident in 2001.