The Yinhe incident (Chinese: 银河号事件) occurred after a claim was made in 1993 by the United States government that the China-based container ship Yinhe (银河; 'Milky Way') was carrying chemical weapon materials to Iran. The United States Navy forced the surrounding Middle Eastern countries to refuse docking rights to the Yinhe, leaving it in the international waters of the Indian Ocean for twenty-four days. Despite eventually concluding that the cargo ship did not contain any precursors of chemical weapons, the U.S. government refused to apologize, stating that "the United States had acted in good faith on intelligence." American officials within the Clinton administration later accused China of deliberately spreading false intelligence in order to cause the incident, referring to it as a 'sting.'
The Yinhe was a Chinese container ship that ran on a fixed schedule between Tianjin Port and Kuwait. Its scheduled port visits included Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Dubai and Daman and Diu. It belonged to the China Ocean Shipping Corporation (中远集团), and had maintained a perfect on-time schedule before the incident.
In late July 1993, the United States alleged that a Chinese ship was carrying chemical weapon materials to Abbas Harbor, Iran, citing a ship's manifest obtained by its Central Intelligence Agency. The United States requested that the Yinhe turn back to China in order to unload its alleged cargo, but China refused after conducting an investigation and determining that no chemical weapons precursors were present on the ship.. At this time, the Yinhe had already departed China and was on its way to Kuwait.
On August 8, 1993, China publicly announced that the Yinhe was under "intrusive surveillance" by American warships in international waters—which American officials claimed was a sign that China sought a confrontation—and declared officially that the ship did not carry any chemical weapons materials. The U.S. government dismissed the declaration, and a senior member of the Clinton administration initially stated that while it would be illegal for the United States to board the ship for inspection, the United States would continue efforts to persuade China to recall the ship.
On August 20, 1993, after three weeks at international waters, the ship was allowed to "take on fuel and water ... to ensure the safety of the vessel and crew" upon request from the shipping company. A fresh water ship registered at the United Arab Emirates brought fresh water, vegetables and fruits.
On August 28, 1993, the United States and China agreed to an open inspection of the ship at a Saudi Arabian port, by a Saudi-United States joint team, following a preliminary boarding by seventeen Chinese and two Saudi officials.
All 628 containers on board were inspected by U.S. technicians. The U.S. intelligence specified thiodiglycol and thionyl chloride as the chemical weapon materials. In the end, "the complete inspection of all the containers aboard the Yinhe showed conclusively [that the chemicals] were not among the ship's cargo". The only chemical material carried by the ship was ordinary solid paint.
On September 4, the representatives of the Chinese, Saudi and United States governments jointly signed a certification that the ship's cargo did not contain materials related to chemical weapons.
American officials declined to apologize for the incident, claiming that the United States had acted in "good faith" on intelligence from a number of sources. While they said they were discussing the issue of whether the United States was obligated to pay compensation to the ship owner, China Ocean Shipping Corporation, there is no further confirmation of the compensation agreement or execution.
When the accusations were reported in China, Chinese nationalism increased in response. The Chinese government attempted to downplay the issue by claiming that the accusation was not the official stand of the American government and did not represent the majority opinion in the United States. A U.S. House report in 2001 concluded that the Yinhe incident "has been repeatedly cited as a case of international bullying by the United States".
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Einhorn testified before Congress in 1997 that "our initial information was correct, that the goods were intended to be on board that ship ... we think our intelligence community had done a good job in that case".
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