China forces run-in at sea as warships nearly collide
BEIJING — An American guided-missile cruiser operating in international waters in the South China Sea was forced to take evasive action this month to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship, the Pacific Fleet has revealed.
“The U.S. has raised this issue at a high level with the Chinese government,” a State Department spokesperson told Stars and Stripes.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army, or PLA, navy vessel on Dec. 5 tried to get the USS Cowpens to stop, according to military officials.
“I don't know the intent of the guy driving that PLA ship,” one official told Stars and Stripes. “I just know that he was moving to impede and harass the Cowpens.”
It is unclear why the Chinese vessel wanted the Cowpens to stop.
China's government has not commented on the incident, but the state-run English language Global Times newspaper carried a report about it on Saturday that accused the U.S. military of “using the excuse of freedom of navigation on the high seas as a way to conduct close surveillance and monitoring of China's normal military activities.”
The Chinese government claims most of the South China as its territorial waters, but the United States and most other countries don't recognize it as such. The PLA navy's attempt to stop or impede the Cowpens may have been a symbolic attempt to assert its sovereignty over the area.
“It is not uncommon for navies to operate in close proximity, which is why it is paramount that all navies follow international standards for maritime rules of the road in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and professionalism,” said an official, who was not authorized to speak by name.
The official said the Dec. 5 incident was resolved eventually “when effective bridge-to-bridge communication occurred between the U.S. and Chinese crews, and both vessels maneuvered to ensure safe passage.”
Friction has been growing between the militaries of the United States and China.
Last month, China unilaterally established an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea, encompassing a chain of small, rocky islands that it claims sovereignty over but that are administered by Japan.
It warned that any noncommercial aircraft entering the zone without notice could face “defensive emergency measures,” but the United States immediately called China's bluff by flying B-52 bombers through the zone.
A few days later, China scrambled fighter jets to track U.S. and Japanese military aircraft flying through the zone.
The establishment of the air defense zone was seen as part of China's increasingly assertive and nationalistic stance over disputed maritime territory contested with many of its neighbors.
Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation told The Washington Post that the latest incident was part of a trend that goes back to 2011 and that there was little doubt that it was intentional, occurring after the air defense zone was set up and just before a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
“All of this is consistent,” Cheng said. “It reflects a very Chinese point of view that these are our waters, under our control, and everyone else should leave. The Chinese are pushing their claims, willing to run risks, willing to be aggressive.”
Shortly after establishing the air defense zone, China deployed its only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea for military drills. At the time, the Global Times complained that during its voyage, “warplanes and aircraft from the U.S. and Japan nervously followed the Chinese carrier, trying to put psychological pressure on the Chinese people.”
David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analysis said the Cowpens incident did not appear to be tied to the air defense zone.
“My gut would suggest to me that this dangerous and uncalled-for activity was a local initiative by the local Chinese commanders,” Finkelstein said. “I see this as a task force that used less than professional methods to protect their carrier, thereby engaging in potentially dangerous behavior.”
The encounter with the Cowpens is not the first time that Chinese ships have acted aggressively against Navy vessels. In one high-profile incident in March 2009, five Chinese ships harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters in the South China Sea, forcing the Impeccable to make an emergency maneuver in order to avoid collision. During the confrontation, crew members waved Chinese flags and told the Impeccable to leave the area, the Pentagon said at the time.
Stars and Stripes and The Washington Post contributed to this report.