When a U.S. warship had to maneuver to avoid crashing into a Chinese warship on Dec. 5 in international waters in the South China Sea, the Chinese ship was blocking the U.S. ship’s freedom of navigation. With this incident and others, the Chinese have put pressure on whether the United States will continue to uphold the right of all nations to sail unimpeded through waters over which the Chinese want to claim control.
The incident on Dec. 5 spurred reactions from U.S. and Chinese defense officials. Defense analysts have brought the incident front and center as one of the most serious encounters in recent memory between the U.S. and Chinese navies.
The Chinese navy had sent its Liaoning aircraft carrier to the South China Sea on its first cross-sea training voyage in late November. The move came just after it declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over international waters in the East China Sea Nov. 23, which raised tensions with surrounding countries. The ADIZ asserted air rights over the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are owned by Japan.
The Liaoning was accompanied by two missile frigates and two missile destroyers. The ships sailed south from Hainan Island to an area just north of the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by mainland China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Then, with the ships in place, China declared an “inner defense layer” around the Liaoning that was 60 miles across and covered 2,800 square miles in a narrow shipping lane, according to The Diplomat.
According to the Chinese account, by merely entering this huge zone, the U.S. ship had interfered with the Chinese navy.
The Chinese naval exercise came shortly after Taiwan had announced it was expanding its military base on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by mainland China.
It also followed upon China itself becoming more aggressive in asserting its claims to the East China Sea, and the United States openly defying China’s claims. On Nov. 26, the United States flew two B-52 bombers over China’s newly declared ADIZ. The flight was viewed as encouragement to other countries to ignore China’s threats.
Into this international storm, the USS Cowpens cruiser sailed after providing relief to Philippine typhoon victims.
Media reports said the Cowpens was monitoring China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, and nearly collided with a Chinese destroyer, which cut in front of the American ship.
Like the B-52s that had transited China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea, the Cowpens’s presence challenged the Chinese regime’s claim to control territory.
Unnamed U.S. officials said, according to The Washington Free Beacon, “The Cowpens was conducting a routine operation done to exercise its freedom of navigation near the Chinese carrier when the incident occurred about a week ago.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded to the incident on Dec. 19, saying “that action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action. It was—it was unhelpful. It was irresponsible.”
It is not uncommon for navies to monitor the naval activities of other countries—and China’s recent naval aggression is also not a first.
“For over a decade now the Chinese have been aggressively interfering with American intelligence gathering aircraft and ships,” states a report on military analysis website Strategy Page. “U.S. Navy survey ships operating in international waters often find themselves approached, especially at night, by Chinese fishing boats that deliberately get in the way.”
“In some cases the harassment includes Chinese warships and naval patrol aircraft as well,” it states.
A U.S. Navy official told Christian Science Monitor that encounters with China, such as the recent one, occur with relative frequency.
The latest incident may be among the more serious, however, at least among those, which are made public—and when put in context of history, the growing conflicts with the Chinese navy are significant.
Similar disruptions were commonplace between the United States and Soviet navies during the Cold War. While they were more of a minor nuisance, concern of a miscalculation that could escalate into a more serious conflict led both countries to sign the 1972 U.S.–Soviet Incidents at Sea pact to avoid naval collisions and showdowns.
As tensions grow in China’s disputed waters, officials are now voicing similar concerns. Hagel said, “What we don’t want is some miscalculation here to occur. And when you have a Cowpens issue, that’s the kind of thing that’s very incendiary, that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation.”