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'New York Times' Reporter Recalls Encounter In Disputed South China Sea Waters


It can be difficult to explain the tension between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea until you experience it up close, until you're there and see Chinese military come toward you via air and sea. New York Times reporter Helene Cooper got that view while spending nearly a week on a U.S. Navy cruiser that was doing patrols in the disputed waters. The area's believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and is also claimed in part by other countries, including Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines. And yet China's been piling sand onto reefs, building new islands on the region. Helene Cooper joins us now. Hello, welcome to the program.

HELENE COOPER: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: Good. So you were on these ships, and you witness this very kind of delicate diplomatic, I guess, etiquette between China and the U.S. naval ships. Describe what happened.

COOPER: Well, a few hours after the American cruiser began transiting through the disputed Spratly Islands, a Chinese frigate showed up, launched a helicopter off the frigate and that flew and started circling the American ship. The Chinese helicopter pilot did not respond to repeated calls from the American ship and then flew back to the Chinese frigate which then started coming much closer to the American ship.

And at this point everybody, all the sailors have like charged up to the bridge of the American ship. The American Capt. Curt Renshaw is now trying to initiate what they call bridge-to-bridge conversation to find out why the Chinese ship is coming so close. So he opened with, you know, this is a pleasant day. Please identify yourself, and there was a long pause before the Chinese frigate finally identified itself and responded, it's a very nice day to be at sea.

CORNISH: You're describing these, I guess, chilly pleasantries, but was it scary?

COOPER: Scary is probably too strong a word. I was very tense, and I think some of the officers on the American ship were very tense as well because you have these two ships which - and these two captains who at that point are very much the captains of their own individual domains. They're the ones who are managing this interchange and trying to make sure that they get their point across.

In the case of the American ship, we're going to sail through these international waters. You can't stop us. And the case of the Chinese ship, these are our borders, and we're going to impress upon you that if you think you're going to come through here, we're going to try to at least make it difficult for you.

CORNISH: How did this interaction end?

COOPER: This interaction ended with first the American captain saying we're not going to tell you how long we're going to be here. We like being at sea, and the Chinese captain then responding basically with, oh, yeah, then we're going to follow you for as long as you're here.

CORNISH: Is this perceived to be working, these U.S. patrols?

COOPER: That is such a good question. I would flip that question around and say, has China actually changed the facts on the ground? And I think they kind of have. I think they - we're now at the point that China has built these military installations, they've projected their power outward, so you're looking at whether the United States can turn the clock back now. I think that might be pretty hard.

CORNISH: So despite all this, what is China's legal status at this point? What can we look for going forward?

COOPER: We're going to be finding out very soon. There's an arbitration panel in the Hague that's expected to rule on a case brought by the Philippines. And the ruling is expected either this month or next month, and the expectation is that this ruling is not going to go China's way. Certainly, the Obama administration and the White House is worried that if this ruling goes against China, it's going to escalate tensions because Beijing is going to ignore it and then Philippines is now going to think that it has legal standing to really go after China.

CORNISH: Helene Cooper of The New York Times, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

COOPER: Thank you, Audie. It was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.