A Chinese destroyer performed an “unsafe” maneuver during an encounter with a U.S. Navy warship in the disputed South China Sea over the weekend, coming within 40 meters (45 yards) of the American vessel’s bow and forcing it to steer the ship away to prevent a collision, the U.S. military said Tuesday.
The confrontation occurred Sunday, as the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur was conducting what the U.S. calls “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) near a Chinese-held man-made islet in the Spratly chain of the strategic waterway.
“At approximately 0830 local time on September 30, a PRC LUYANG destroyer approached USS DECATUR in an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea,” U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Charlie Brown said in a statement.
“The PRC destroyer conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for DECATUR to depart the area,” it added. “The PRC destroyer approached within 45 yards of DECATUR’s bow, after which DECATUR maneuvered to prevent a collision.”
The encounter occurred at a significantly closer distance than one of the last major incidents reported between the two navies. In 2013, the USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action in order to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship less than 460 meters (500 yards) off its bow while operating in international waters in the South China Sea. Media reports at the time citing U.S. officials called the incident a highly unusual and deliberate act by Beijing.
Sunday’s FONOP was the latest in a series of recent moves by the U.S. military in the South China Sea and in the diplomatic arena amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The Decatur had sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly chain as part of the United States’ FONOP program. The operations are intended to enforce the right of free passage in international waters under international law. The two islets are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Both outposts are among seven in the Spratlys that China has built up, with some transformed from so-called low-tide elevations not entitled to 12 nautical mile territorial seas into garrisons with massive radar installations, scores of buildings and military-grade runways.
Beijing has constructed a series of military outposts throughout the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the zone, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also operate.
In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued a landmark ruling that Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to the South China Sea had no legal basis. China has rejected the international tribunal’s ruling.
Beijing says its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said Tuesday that one of its naval vessels had warned away the U.S. ship. In a boilerplate announcement posted to its website, the ministry blasted the encounter, saying the military was “firmly opposed” to the FONOPs and reiterated Beijing’s claim that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and its adjacent waters.”
“At present, with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN nations, the situation in the South China Sea has stabilized,” ministry spokesman Wu Qian said. “However, the U.S. has repeatedly sent warships to enter the waters near Chinese islands in the South China Sea, seriously threatening China’s sovereignty and security, undermining Sino-U.S. military relations and seriously endangering regional peace and stability.”
It added: “China’s military is resolutely opposed to this.”
In a separate statement posted to China’s Foreign Ministry website, spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticized the United States for “repeatedly resorting to provocative acts” and urged it to “immediately correct its mistakes.”
China, Hua said, “will take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security.”
Washington has blasted Beijing for its island-building in the South China Sea, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway.
A U.S. defense official told The Japan Times on Sunday that the Decatur conducted the freedom of navigation operation under the right of “innocent passage.”
International law permits foreign warships to transit a country’s territorial waters on the basis of innocent passage without seeking prior permission, and the Chinese Navy has exercised that right off Alaska, among other locations.
However, Beijing demands that foreign naval vessels seek its permission before transiting Chinese territorial waters.
The U.S. Navy regularly conducts FONOPs to challenge maritime claims the United States considers excessive. Washington says it conducts these operations throughout the world, though Beijing remains sensitive about them and has at times labeled them “provocations.”
Tuesday’s statement, unusual in clearly announcing the run-in with the Chinese vessel, reaffirmed that the U.S. would not halt its operations in the area.
“U.S. Navy ships and aircraft operate throughout the Indo-Pacific routinely, including in the South China Sea. As we have for decades, our forces will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
Sunday’s FONOP also came just days after the U.S. sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers through the strategic waterway twice during the past week.
Last week, the Pentagon said the B-52s had transited over the South China Sea as part of “regularly scheduled operations designed to enhance our interoperability with our partners and allies in the region.”
Meanwhile, media reports have said China has also canceled a high-level security meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that had been planned for later this month amid a broad range of disputes between Beijing and Washington, over issues such as arms sales to Taiwan and military activity in the South China Sea and other waters around China.
China and the United States are also locked in a spiraling trade war that has seen them level increasingly severe rounds of tariffs on each other’s imports.
Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said that the apparent uptick in Washington’s moves in the South China Sea and on other contentious issues with Beijing such as trade could represent a new dimension to the two powers’ rivalry.
“The pendulum has changed dramatically against China since the rejection of the July 2016 PCA decision and militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea,” Nagy said. “Intra- and extra-regional powers, including the U.S., Japan, India and others, want to strongly signal to China that their outright rejection of international law and assertive behavior in the South and East China seas will not go unchallenged by the international community.”
Nagy, who is also a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs in Tokyo, said that through regularized FONOPs by the U.S. and training exercises by Britain, Japan and France in the region, “like-minded countries are hoping to convince Beijing that their interests are better served through following international law instead of attempting to create facts on the ground through hybrid tactics such as lawfare or island-building.”