The recent near-violent confrontation on the South China Sea between the Chinese navy and a U.S. navy reconnaissance ship brought back memories of the 2001 showdown over the crash landing of an American recon plane on Hainan Island. History has a funny way of repeating itself.
The Chinese intention is pretty clear - it wants to test a new American president who is even more of a rookie at international affairs than George W. Bush was in April 2001. But more important, the Chinese really would want to know how its navy stacks up against the world's premier sea power.
China's adventure into the Horn of Africa region last year was but a thinly disguised attempt to flex its new naval muscles. A land power throughout its history, China in recent years has made a concerted effort to bolster its maritime capabilities. It needs a stronger navy to provide safe passage for its growing number of freight and merchant ships - the backbone of the world's second-largest exporter.
But there is another aim at work. China may not be spoiling for a fight with the U.S. Navy, but it wants to make sure it won't be totally overwhelmed if a confrontation becomes inevitable. Of course, much of this has to do with Taiwan - China knows if it must take the island by force, a thousand missiles and a hundred divisions of the PLA won't get the job done if they can't get across the Taiwan Strait.
And there's the matter of the South China Sea, which has long been considered a "lake" by the Chinese, who claims ownership of all of the potentially oil-rich (on par with Kuwait by one estimate) Spratly Islands. Hainan Island serves as the hub of China's budding submarine fleet, a force that has undergone rapid modernization and is quickly becoming the second-strongest in the world.
So when an American ship crept nearby, it became a golden opportunity for China to fire a shot across the bow of USS Barack Obama. The new president's reaction, or the absence of, will give China important clues it's looking for.