A U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser had a confrontation with a Chinese military ship on Dec. 5 in the South China Sea, underscoring rising tensions in the region over China’s newly declared air defense zone.
The USS Cowpens, operating in international waters, and a Chinese naval vessel “had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet said yesterday in a statement.
“This incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap,” according to the Navy statement.
China was probably angry that the Cowpens may have been trying to spy on China’s only aircraft carrier, which was operating in the area, said Dean Cheng, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington.
“This was not an accident,” Cheng said in an interview. “It was deliberate. The Chinese are raising the ante.”
The U.S. government lodged protests over the incident with Chinese officials in Beijing and Washington, according to a State Department official who asked not to be named discussing the content of diplomatic communications.
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Calls today outside of normal office hours to the spokesmen’s offices of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense weren’t answered and there were no statements regarding the incident on their websites.
Ultimately, officers on the Chinese and U.S. vessels communicated and both warships maneuvered to ensure safe passage, according to a U.S. defense official who asked not to be identified discussing the incident. The official said the outcome underscored the need for continuing military-to-military communications with China to reduce the risk of mishaps.
While the near-collision was resolved peacefully, Cheng said it hints at the growing risk of confrontation as China seeks ways to assert its sovereignty in the region.
China last month unnerved its neighbors by declaring an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that overlaps with Japan’s zone and includes uninhabited islands claimed by both nations.
“I think we’re going to see much more tension in the air and on the surface,” Cheng said. “In the South China Sea, we’ve been seeing a steady ratcheting up of pressure.”
A report of the confrontation was carried today on huanqiu.com, the website of the Global Times, a newspaper under the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, citing reports from foreign media. The paper said the U.S. Navy was using the excuse of freedom of navigation on the high seas to carry out surveillance in waters near China, when in reality it was monitoring and interfering in the country’s normal naval activites.
The Global Times identified the Chinese aircraft carrier as the Liaoning. The ship was commissioned last year, and left its home port of Qingdao in eastern China on Nov. 26 for training in the South China Sea escorted by two missile destroyers and two missile frigates, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that day.
The Chinese vessel tried to force the Cowpens to stop, causing a military standoff, according to the Washington Free Beacon, a news website, which earlier reported the incident. The Cowpens continued on its course because it was operating in international waters.
After a second Chinese ship sailed in front of the Cowpens and stopped, the U.S. vessel was forced to change course to avoid a collision, the Free Beacon said.
“It’s getting dangerous out there,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “Accidents happen. People can get killed out there through these maneuvers. We need more efforts at ways to tamp down or avert crises as they arise.”
Cronin said the incident appeared to be a “tit-for-tat” response to the U.S. refusing to recognize China’s new air defense zone.
“We’re making them look impotent with respect to the ADIZ,” Cronin said, referring to the acronym for air defense identification zone.
By trying to block a U.S. ship, China is engaging in “coercive diplomacy -- it’s neither war nor peace,” he said.