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Terrorism & Security

Is China's near miss with US ship the start of a new pattern?

China's defense ministry confirmed and appeared to downplay the incident, but commentary in the state-run news agency took a more aggressive tone on who's to blame.

By Staff writer / December 18, 2013

A crew member of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy monitors on the deck of the China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, last month while sailing on the East China Sea for sea trials. The Chinese government confirmed today that one of the Liaoning's escort ships experienced a near miss with the USS Cowpens earlier this month.

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Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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China confirmed today that one of their naval vessels and a US warship nearly collided earlier this month in the South China Sea, in what analysts say is one of the most significant US-China military encounters in the region in years. 

A Chinese naval ship “conducting normal patrols encountered a U.S. military vessel in the South China Sea,” a statement posted on the Chinese Ministry of National Defense today read. “Throughout the encounter, the Chinese naval ship handled the situation properly in strict accordance with operating regulations.”

Pentagon officials said last week that on Dec. 5, the USS Cowpens was “lawfully operating” when it was forced to abruptly maneuver to avoid colliding with the Chinese ship.

China’s defense ministry statement appeared to try and downplay the incident, reports The New York Times, by “refrain[ing] from alleging any improper conduct by the American warship and said that military relations between China and the United States ‘face a good opportunity for development.’ ”

A translation of the Defense Ministry statement provided by the New York Times reads:

Recently, a Chinese naval ship conducting normal patrols encountered a U.S. military vessel in the South China Sea. Throughout the encounter, the Chinese naval ship handled the situation properly in strict accordance with operating regulations. The defense departments of the two countries have also reported the relevant circumstances through normal operational channels and carried out effective communication. Some relevant media reports have not been in line with the facts. Sino-U.S. military relations face a good opportunity for development. Both sides are willing to strengthen communications, coordinate closely and make efforts toward safeguarding regional peace and stability.

A commentary published today in China’s official Xinhua news agency, however, took a more aggressive tone:

On Dec. 5, U.S. missile cruiser Cowpens, despite warnings from China's aircraft carrier task group, broke into the Chinese navy's drilling waters in the South China Sea, and almost collided with a Chinese warship nearby.

In fact, even before the navy training, Chinese maritime authorities have posted a navigation notice on its website, and the U.S. warship, which should have had the knowledge of what the Chinese were doing there, intentionally carried on with its surveillance of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier and triggered the confrontation.

While the Xinhua editorial also noted that Washington “has to understand” the right of China to grow its national defense capabilities, it also called for enhanced communication channels, saying that a lack of trust and military coordination are “weak links” between the two nations.

When US Navy officials confirmed the incident to The Christian Science Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent last week, they cautioned that "these sorts of standoffs with China happen with relative frequency in the Pacific and that, according to one Navy officer with knowledge of the event, it’s important not to 'overhype' the incident."

Other analysts told the Monitor that the incident carried a warning from the Chinese: 

...[T]he recent run-in holds a larger message, analysts say. The chief one may be that the US will not be able to comfortably troll the waters of the western Pacific.

“The Chinese are trying to make it clear that, if the US wants to operate in these waters, then it should be prepared to be operating under a high state of tension,” says Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. “If the US doesn’t want tension, then it’s very simple: leave.” 

The confrontation, he adds, was “a deliberate effort to intimidate.”

Michael Swaine, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Monitor that the Chinese are most likely trying to increase their capacity to deter other forces, like the US and Japanese, "from being able to prevail in possible confrontations over Taiwan and other disputed territories."

The near sea miss comes at a period of heightened tensions in the region since China declared an air defense identification zone over disputed territory late last month. China and Japan have competing territorial claims in the East China Sea, and several Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam, Malaysia, and The Philippines have competing claims in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first official trip to Vietnam, announced the US was giving an additional $32.5 million for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China,” according to the Associated Press.

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