Members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy stand on the Liaoning aircraft carrier as it sails into Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

Warships’ Near-Collision at Sea Shows Rising U.S.-China Tensions

(Bloomberg) -- A close call between a U.S. and a Chinese destroyer in the disputed South China Sea added to tensions between two countries already embroiled in an escalating trade war.

The U.S. accused China’s navy of “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct near an occupied reef in the South China Sea after a Chinese destroyer maneuvered near the bow of the USS Decatur, an Aegis-class destroyer based in San Diego.

Warships’ Near-Collision at Sea Shows Rising U.S.-China Tensions

While close encounters between U.S. and Chinese forces are hardly unprecedented, particularly in the South China Sea, analysts said these incidents could increase as the broader relationship between Washington and Beijing comes under strain.

The world’s two biggest economies are locked in a trade war, and years of Chinese investment in its military -- the country unveiled its first domestically built aircraft carrier last year -- mean it can deploy with greater confidence against the U.S. and other countries.

“Everything in the bilateral relationship is connected,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Trade and military power are linked in the Chinese point of view, and the Trump administration’s policy seems to be to “thwart China’s rise to power in trade and everything else,” she added.

The USS Decatur, was sailing “in the vicinity” of Gaven Reefs on Sunday, when a Chinese destroyer confronted it in “an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver,” according to Lieutenant Commander Tim Gorman, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The destroyer “approached within 45 yards of Decatur’s bow, after which Decatur maneuvered to prevent a collision.”

China accused the U.S. of violating its “indisputable sovereignty,” a claim that runs counter to a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration panel in the Hague. “We strongly urge the U.S. side to immediately correct its mistake and stop such provocative actions to avoid undermining China-U.S. relations and regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday in a statement.

Modern destroyers are among the largest U.S. surface warships, outstripping the previous generations of the vessels that fought in World Wars I and II. The Decatur is 505 feet long and carries a crew of about 300, according to the Navy.

Gaven Reefs is a part of the Spratly Islands archipelago claimed by China and other nations. China first took possession of what maritime experts call the “feature” in 1988 and has built what was mostly a set of submerged coral into a paved development with communications towers, wind turbines and administrative buildings, according to a analysis of aerial photographs by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

While the naval near-miss was reported by CNN on Sunday, details about the confrontation only emerged when both sides issued statements on Tuesday.

Competing Claims

Beijing claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, based on a 1947 map showing vague dashes -- the so-called nine-dash line. Five other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have also staked claims in the area, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

Although the U.S. takes no position on the competing claims, its Navy regularly carries out “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, by sending warships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to travel through what it considers international waters and airspace. The People’s Liberation Army has sought to contest such moves in territory it considers China’s.

“No surprise that the PLA is challenging FONOPs near Spratlys,” tweeted Zack Cooper, who studies U.S. defense strategy in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “This type of limited probe is an attempt to contest rules and norms. It fails as long as we continue to operate.”

The incident would have contravened the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that was agreed to by China, the U.S. and other countries in 2014, said Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The code aims to curb the chances of accidents and reducing the risk of escalation if one occurs.

“The reported 45 yards separation gives extremely little margin for safety,” Koh said. “It seems to me that this was deliberate and could have been sanctioned by higher levels as part of the retaliatory moves by China in recent times.”

Fraught Maneuvers

Beijing last month refused a U.S. warship entry to Hong Kong, and its top naval officer canceled a high-level meeting with his U.S. counterpart. The Associated Press reported Monday that Defense Secretary James Mattis had dropped plans to visit China later this month, citing U.S. defense officials it didn’t identify.

The Decatur incident represented at least the second time this year that the U.S. has accused the Chinese navy of acting unprofessionally. In May, Chinese warships warned two U.S. Navy ships away from the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and maneuvered in a “safe, but unprofessional” manner, according to a CBS report. That assessment meant the ships maneuvered erratically without a collision risk, it said.

The U.S. didn’t show signs of being intimidated by the incident. The country will “continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” said Gorman, the Pacific Fleet spokesman.

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