China confrontation is test for Obama

Washington - US President Barack Obama faces a critical "early test" from China over a tense naval standoff in the South China Sea, and the whole world is watching his response, a US lawmaker cautioned Monday.

"This story will reverberate around the world and will be carefully watched in North Korea, Iran and Syria," said Republican Representative Mark Kirk, a US Navy Reservist who was at the Pentagon when the incident occurred Sunday. "It’s surprising in that the Chinese challenged a United States ship just two and a half weeks before the Obama/Hu Jintao summit" in London in April, Kirk told AFP by telephone.

"It’s an early test" of the new US president, but "it’s right on schedule," Kirk said, noting that China similarly challenged then-president George W. Bush two months after he took office in January 2001.

The Obama administration needs to respond forcefully, perhaps by sending the unarmed surveillance ship "right back into the same area" — this time with a destroyer escort, to make clear Washington cannot be bullied in international waters, said Kirk.

And the US House of Representatives’ US-China Working Group will formally condemn the confrontation in a "strongly worded letter" to Chinese President Hu Jintao, said Kirk, who co-founded and co-chairs the group.

The group’s condemnation could get Beijing’s attention because it was created to engage China and strengthen diplomatic ties in a bid avoid conflict between the two major powers.

He spoke after the Pentagon said five Chinese vessels maneuvered dangerously close to a US Navy ship in the South China Sea on Sunday, approaching within 25 feet of the unarmed surveillance ship.

The State Department said it had protested to Chinese authorities over the incident which occurred on Sunday in the South China Sea, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Hainan Island.