28 October 2016
Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters in the South China Sea. Photo: Bloomberg
Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters in the South China Sea. Photo: Bloomberg

US, China combat ships in unexpected South China Sea encounter

Naval combat ships from the United States and China used agreed codes for unplanned encounters during a recent patrol of contested South China Sea waters.

USS Fort Worth met a Chinese military vessel near the disputed Spratly islands, Bloomberg reported Wednesday, citing Admiral Michelle Howard, vice chief of US naval operations.

The US patrol this month was the first time a littoral combat ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“We had previously agreed with the Chinese, if we met at sea, to use code for unexpected encounters at sea,” Howard said.

“Fort Worth came across one of our counterparts and they did do that, so things went as professionally as they have since that agreement was made.”

Those mechanisms — designed to avoid a confrontation between ships or planes that escalates into a broader clash — may be tested as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter advocates expanding patrols in the sea, including into a 22-kilometer radius of reefs that China is building on.

Such actions, known as freedom of navigation challenges, could spark protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its territorial assertions.

Howard declined to say if the USS Fort Worth sailed within 22 kilometes of the Spratlys, or give further details of the encounter.

Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and keeping tensions down in the area is key given about half the world’s merchant ships pass through the waters every year.

Freedom of navigation operations are not unusual for the US Navy, which in the year to September 2014 challenged 19 nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam for the way they manage their territorial waters.

Maritime issues should not be approached with a “zero-sum mindset,” Rear Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s South Sea Fleet, said at a defense symposium on Wednesday in Singapore.

“A new security concept should be unfolded — keep yourself safe while making others safe and jointly build a harmonious and stable environment,” he said.

“China consistently pursues a national defense policy which is defensive in nature, actively developing friendly military relations with the rest of the world.” 

China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea spans about the size of the US Navy’s Great Lakes recruiting command, which handles 30,000 to 35,000 people a year, said Howard, who was the first African American woman to command a ship in the US Navy and the first female to hold a four-star Admiral rank.

“I think it’s now time for China to talk about what the reclamation of land means,” she said.

“There’s a purpose to it and I think in terms of helping everybody who lives in this part of the world to understand the why would be helpful for China to help explain the why.”

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