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Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says recent US and Chinese air force posturing could easily deteriorate into unwanted disasters

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a US military aircraft over the South China Sea on Tuesday. The incident happened in international air space. The US maritime reconnaissance aircraft carried out a routine patrol in the area. Also indicating that Chinese maneuvers were dangerous as it forced the US aircraft to drop 200 feet to avoid collision. Later on Thursday, Hong Lee from the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the US allegations saying they were not true. The US plane flew close to Hainan Island two Chinese aircrafts followed and monitored at a safe distance. There were no maneuvers from the Chinese aircraft. Their actions were completely professional and safe said the Chinese foreign ministry. Several nations claimed territory in the resource rich South China Sea. Tensions in the region have increased recently with China and the US trading accusations over military activity.  On to talk about all of this is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. He was a former chief of staff for the US Secretary of Collin Powell and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary.  Larry thank you so much for joining us today. LAWRENCE WILKERSON:  Thanks for having me Sharmini. It’s probably also important to point out I was Collin Powell’s chief assistant or principle assistant when he was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. So a little military bit of it there. PERIES: So Larry tell us what all of this means, this recent heightened tensions and what this adds to those tensions? WILKERSON: Well as you probably are aware we’ve negotiated an agreement much like the Incidents at Sea Agreement the so called INCSEA agreement that we have with the Soviets with the Chinese. So there is a way to respond now, it’s called the Code for Unplanned Encounters, CUES, an acronym and that’s what’s supposed to govern incidents like this. I have to assume that it did play a part because it didn’t wind up in any kind of casualties or any kind of damage to the airplanes. That said even with these kinds of agreements worked out at the highest levels you have problems and you have problems with the individual aviators, you got problems with the individual aircraft themselves and profiles, and even problems with the commanders who send them out and are constantly pushing the envelopes. By that I take it back to 2001 when we had a similar incident, only this one ended rather badly. The Chinese FA fighter aircraft that was profiling itself in front of our naval reconnaissance aircraft, got a little too close trying to scare the devil out of the pilots in the slower aircraft of course and he hit it. His plane crashed into the ocean and it killed him. One of the best Chinese fighter pilot crew members that we understood the Chinese had. So he was very good. He had done this a number of times before, playing sort of chicken with our aircraft. This is the kind of thing that happens out there and in this case the aircraft collided and killed him and our aircraft was badly damaged, had to go down on Hainan island and we had 24 sailors on board and it took about 11 days to get it back. Probably compromised some very highly classified bureau on board that aircraft. So these incidents are controllable with these arrangements we make through diplomatic contacts but when you get down to where the rubber meets the road it all depends on just how brazen the particular pilot wants to be or on the other hand how much we’re pushing the envelope to what we want to do. PERIES: Now the tensions as you predicted have increased in the South China Sea. Just give us a brief background as to what’s at stake in the sea. WILKERSON: We’re looking at a situation that we’ve looked at many times before, particularly during the Cold War, and that’s a situation where the interests of both powers in this respect, the United States and China, but also the interests of other countries too like Vietnam and the Philippines and so forth intersect in a way that when you put military forces in close proximity you always have the potential for a crisis. In this particular incidents we’re doing so called freedom of navigation exercises. Basically what we’re doing is by practice protocol and standard operating procedures demonstrating to the world and to the Chinese that we think the waters in this South China Sea that are contested are international waters. Whereas the Chinese are building things on rocks and atolls in those waters, specifically and most dangerously in the Spratly’s complex and therefore looking as if they’re claiming they’re going to be Chinese sovereign territory. Which means they have 200 nautical miles’ economic exclusive zones, and 12 nautical miles’ territory limits and so forth. Though the Chinese say that the right of innocent passage will still exist, that means that if they claim and are substantiated in their claim of sovereignty over these rocks then that means they can keep us out. They can keep anybody out whenever they so choose because that’s the way the world works. So we’re trying to demonstrate that’s not the case, they’re trying to demonstrate that is the case. It’s all complicated by the fact that the UN convention on law of the sea treaty is the governing legal framework here. We have a case at the Court of Arbitration in The Hague right now brought by the Philippines. If that case is determined by strictly legal basis I think, there’s a 90% chance that it will be returned against China and for the Philippines. That is to say China’s claim will not be upheld and we’ll have to see what Beijing does with that. My estimate is they will defy that ruling and continue to do exactly as they’re doing because as Mao Zedong said quite eloquently, power comes out of the barrel of a gun. And the Chinese have a big gun and its closest to that territory. I doubt anybody [ ] the Philippines or Vietnam or anyone like that is going to contest them. The only power that will contest them in terms of military strength is probably the United States and as I’ve said before that’s very dangerous. PERIES: Now give us a sense of the political or the geopolitical shakedown in the South China Sea in terms of who is siding with the United States and who’s siding with China at this time. WILKERSON: It’s rather strange as you see this develop. Just the other day you may have noticed that Kabul Afghanistan where we spend a lot of blood and treasure over the last 11-12 years, the government there recognized China’s claims in the South China Sea which I must admit are quite expansive and probably wouldn’t be supported by any court or any convention like the Law of the Sea. But we got different people lining up on different sides. Of course the disputants mostly like the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, they’re pretty much looking for the United States to have at least a shadow of power behind them as they try to work out, mostly bilaterally, their discussions and deliberations with Beijing and try to work them out in their own favor. You’ve also got other powers that are playing in it, in the sense that their shadow hangs over it too. You’ve got Japan and another dispute with Japan over another set of islands. So Japan doesn’t want to see a precedence set with China getting it’s way here because as I said that would set an example with China getting its way with Japan. You’ve also got Korea in there. There’s some disputes with Japan and Korea over islands too so this is all a standard setting process that we’ll live with this for a long time. So we want to make sure that the arbitration that is done is sound arbitration that conclusions reached are sound conclusions in terms of international law and just in terms of common sense. But at the same time we have to recognize that there are powerful entities at work and when you’re operating on interior lines like China is which simply means that they’re a lot closer to the land than we are and vastly exterior lines like we are, which simply means we’re a long way from the fray. It’s very difficult to make a contest of it over a long period of time without getting into some sort of shooting situation and that’s where the danger lies. PERIES: Alright Larry, I know you’re planning on going off for the summer and taking a bit of well-deserved vacation but I hope you keep an eye on what’s happening and be available for us. Thank you so much for joining us today. WILKERSON: I’ll do that Sharmini and thanks for having me on. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.