Asia Pacific

Chinese media say collisions show U.S. Navy 'becoming a hazard in Asian waters'

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy’s second major collision by a ship from its 7th Fleet on Monday shows it is “becoming a hazard in Asian waters” amid Washington’s claim that the navy is protecting freedom of navigation, Chinese state-run media have said.

The U.S. Navy announced Monday a fleetwide probe and temporary halt to operations — including an examination of forces forward-deployed to Japan — after the USS John S. McCain, an Aegis-equipped destroyer home-ported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the Alnic MC tanker collided early Monday off Singapore.

The collision ripped a gaping hole near the warship’s waterline, flooding compartments that included a crew sleeping area and leaving 10 sailors unaccounted for.

The incident followed the June collision of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald with a freighter in the middle of the night off the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo. Seven U.S. sailors were killed in that accident.

The state-run China Daily said in an editorial Tuesday that while the U.S. Navy “likes to claim its presence can help safeguard ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea” its presence there and in other Asian waters is “proving to be an increasing hindrance to ships.”

Beijing has lambasted Washington over its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the contested South China Sea, including those near China’s man-made islands, where it has built up airfields and bolstered its military presence.

The U.S. has accused China of militarizing the islands and urged it to halt such construction.

“It may be hard for people to understand why U.S. warships are unable to avoid other vessels since they are equipped with the world’s most sophisticated radar and electronic tracking systems, and aided by crew members on constant watch,” the editorial said. “But investigations into the cause of the USS Fitzgerald collision shed some light on the way U.S. warships tend to sail without observing maritime traffic rules and the sloppiness of their crews.”

Just last week, the U.S. Navy concluded that the collision was the result of “poor seamanship and flaws in keeping watch” on the part of the Fitzgerald’s crew and relieved its commanding officer, executive officer and senior enlisted sailor for mistakes that led to the deadly crash.

The China Daily said there was “no denying the fact that the increased activities by U.S. warships in Asia-Pacific since Washington initiated its rebalancing to the region are making them a growing risk to commercial shipping.”

It also pointed to what Beijing has touted as measures that have lowered tensions over the South China Sea.

“While the U.S. Navy is becoming a dangerous obstacle in Asian waters, China has been making joint efforts with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to draw up a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and it has boosted navigational safety by constructing five lighthouses on its islands,” it said.

“Anyone should be able to tell who is to blame for militarizing the waters and posing a threat to navigation,” the editorial added.

Collin Koh, a maritime security researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said he believed Beijing was using the editorial to present U.S. activities in the waters “as not just politically detrimental to Chinese interests, but also portray it as hazardous to the international seafaring community operating in this area.”

But Koh noted that while the U.S. presence has become more visible under the freedom of navigation operations, China’s navy has also ramped up its activity in Asian waters.

“So there’s no legitimate reason for Beijing to paint the U.S. Navy as the only hazard in the area,” he said. “If anything, Beijing also needs to acknowledge that not just military but also civilian shipping traffic has become more intense in the regional waters in recent years.”