Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Photos confirm U.S.-Chinese warships’ near-miss as experts say South China Sea encounter likely to affect allied operations in region

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Experts said a near-miss between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Chinese warship in the disputed South China Sea earlier this week could have dire implications for American allies and partners operating in the waterway and elsewhere — including Japan — after the U.S. confirmed that photos showing just how close the two vessels came to colliding were “legitimate.”

A U.S. defense official told The Japan Times on Wednesday that the pictures, apparently taken by a U.S. spy plane and published on the gCaptain commercial marine and offshore energy industry website a day earlier, were not released by the U.S. Navy.

It was not clear how the website received the pictures, but a leak was not out of the question.

The series of photos shows the Chinese warship performing what Washington called an “unsafe” maneuver during an encounter with the USS Decatur in the South China Sea on Sunday. The U.S. military said Tuesday that the Chinese ship came within 45 yards (40 meters) of the American vessel’s bow, forcing the Decatur to maneuver “to prevent a collision.”

The confrontation happened as the Decatur was conducting what the U.S. calls “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) near two Chinese-held man-made islets in the Spratly chain of the strategic waterway.

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 500 yards (460 meters) 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.

Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that video and radar feeds would give a fuller picture of what actually occurred in Sunday’s incident, but noted that based on the photos alone, the ships appeared to be closer than the reported 45 yards.

“Looking at the pictures, taking into account the angle and silhouettes, (that) just doesn’t appear to be that distance,” he said.

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.”

The latest U.S. FONOP was conducted amid a concerted pushback against China’s maritime aggressiveness in the region. Last month, Britain’s HMS Albion, a 22,000 ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, exercised its “freedom of navigation” rights as it passed near the Paracel chain in the South China Sea. Later in September, Japan took the unusual step of announcing that it had carried out military drills involving a submarine and destroyers in the waterway.

Experts said Sunday’s close call was likely planned in response to these moves.

“Probably not a coincidence that the PLA Navy’s new aggressiveness comes so soon after the first FONOP by a U.S. ally, the HMS Albion sail through Paracels,” Aaron Connelly, director of the Southeast Asia Project at Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Beijing may be trying to signal to other U.S. allies and partners considering their own FONOPs that they are not without risk.”

Connelly pointed to the United States’ record of such operations, which he noted “almost always occur without incident” across the globe.

“Let’s be clear: Beijing is supplying the risk here,” he wrote.

Koh, the naval expert, said that China was concerned first and foremost with the United States — “knowing that it’s got the gumption” to pose this kind of challenge. However, he said the recent spate of naval operations by other external powers meant Beijing was almost certainly preparing for the prospect of U.S. allies and partners joining American-led FONOPs, performing their own operations or even synchronizing or coordinating activities as part of a more regular pushback against China’s assertiveness.

“Altogether, the Chinese policy elites may have perceived all these as a concerted move by the U.S. and its allies and partners, therefore finding it necessary to make a stronger point,” Koh said.