Keating told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19 that the Impeccable incident was “certainly a troubling indicator that China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road.”
Asked whether the incident was a sign of growing Chinese military aggression, Keating said he was “not sure.”
He noted that while the Chinese “are behaving in such an irresponsible, one would say illegal, fashion in the South China Sea,” they have three ships engaged in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and are communicating with U.S. warships.
“So at the same time they're playing by the rules in the same sandbox, they're clearly in violation of long-standing, centuries old rules of the road and responsible maritime behavior,” Keating said.
Keating called the matter “confusing,” highlighting what he said was a lack of understanding of Chinese military intentions.
Keating will retire in the coming months. His intended replacement is Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
U.S. efforts to develop an agreement designed to avoid incidents at sea have been rejected by China’s military since the 1990s, a clear indication, analysts say, that Beijing does not want to have a working relationship with the U.S. military.
U.S. efforts to engage China’s military in a dialogue on strategic nuclear weapons have also failed due to China’s refusal to engage in talks.
The incident in the South China Sea involved a PLA navy frigate and a Y-12 aircraft, along with an intelligence gathering ship under the State Oceanic Administration, a patrol boat of the Bureau of Maritime Fisheries, and two patrol boats thought to belong to China’s ocean militias.
The Chinese ships approached to within 25 feet and obstructed the path of the Impeccable.
Afterwards, the U.S. sent a guided missile destroyer to the region.