It’s now being reported that last week saw a tense incident between the USS Cowpens*, a Ticonderoga Guided Missile Cruiser, and a Chinese landing ship, where the Chinese LST forced the Cowpens to manuever to avoid collision.
From the Free Beacon:
A Chinese naval vessel tried to force a U.S. guided missile warship to stop in international waters recently, causing a tense military standoff in the latest case of Chinese maritime harassment, according to defense officials.
The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which recently took part in disaster relief operations in the Philippines, was confronted by Chinese warships in the South China Sea near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning, according to officials familiar with the incident
“On December 5th, while lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA Navy vessel had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” a Navy official said.
On the one hand, this is quite reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War when the Soviets routinely ignored virtually every Rule of the Road in attempts to hassle and annoy US warships. Near misses were common and even the occasional swapping of paint took place.
On the other hand, this is slightly different, as China has long asserted that the entire South China Sea is territorial waters (though absolutely no other country recognizes this, and there is no historical precedent).
It’s not as if the Chinese haven’t done this sort of thing before. In 2001 there was the EP-3E incident, when a Chinese fighter intercepted a routine US surveillance flight (fair enough) but then maneuvered so aggressively it caused a mid-air collision, and the EP-3E had to make an emergency landing in China. The Chinese soon repatriated the US crew, and eventually returned the heavily damaged top-secret spyplane.**
The Free Beacon article also describes the 2009 incident when Chinese assets harassed the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship, operating in international waters, again, waters claimed by China as territorial, or at least as part of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Chinese objective here isn’t to provoke a shooting incident. The attempt is to subtlety exert influence. Every time they can force the ships and aircraft of another nation to change their operations, they bolster their claim to the waters, and cause other nations to lose face.
In ordinary times, the US Navy is rather absolutist about the Freedom of Navigation in international waters. The Gulf of Sidra incident, when Ghaddafi claimed those waters were territorial to Libya, arose when the US Navy promptly conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises in those waters. When the Libyans came out to play, they found out they were sorely ill equipeed to challenge the varsity, losing ships, planes and SAM sites in the process.
But will our current administration stand firm in the face of the Chinese? Do more than pass a mild diplomatic note? There is cause for doubt. ADM Locklear, US Pacific Command commander, has sounded conciliatory in the face of Chinese claims. Mind you, when PACOM’s lips are moving (on a diplomatic matter, at least) the Obama administration is speaking.
One fears the current administration’s unwillingness to embrace US strength and resolve will prompt the Chinese to further engage in aggressive behavior, and continue to escalate tensions in the region.
To be sure, this is a fairly minor incident. But failure to curb Chinese actions in the region will embolden them, and increase the chances of a more serious incident, one our current administration is wholly unprepared to face.
**One wonders how the USS Cowpens would have fared were the infamous CAPT Holly Graf still in command.
*After, of course, they had plenty of time to examine every classified bit in minute detail.