Collision Course in the South China Sea?

The United States and Chinese navies have just narrowly avoided a dangerous collision. This was not an accident but an escalation, a show of force on the part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to drive out the US Navy from what China considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, the USS Decatur, conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the surrounding waters of a Chinese-claimed artificial island in the South China Sea, was forced to make a sudden course change to avoid collision with a Chinese navy vessel making ‘aggressive manoeuvres’. Tensions have been on the rise between Washington and Beijing over a variety of disputes, but this is the closest the two have come to a potential clash in years. The episode serves as an important reminder that the South China Sea dispute is both very real and active, and the potential for a clash should never be underestimated. It also begs the question of whether the escalation and confrontational stance on the part of the Chinese is limited to opposing Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US in the region, or whether this represents a new modus operandi of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that other navies can also expect to confront, should their vessels be found in the area.

The United States formally established its FONOPs programme in 1979 to support the US national interest of freedom of the seas and has since exercised its right to ‘innocent passage’ as allowed under the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea. These operations have included sailing within 12 nautical miles from the coasts of China’s militarised, artificial islands in the South China Sea. From October 2016 to September 2017, the US conducted several FONOPs explicitly against what it considers China’s excessive maritime claims in this region.  

FONOPs are often met with repeated radio warnings by the Chinese, urging US military ships and aircraft to ‘leave immediately’. Philippine military aircraft similarly conducting maritime air surveillance in the area have been met with more direct and explicit warnings, being told to ‘leave immediately and keep off to avoid misunderstanding’. More recently, during the FONOP in the South China Sea by the UK Royal Navy’s HMS Albion, the British ship was shadowed by an ‘irresponsibly close’ Chinese warship and met with low flyovers by Chinese jets.

The confrontation is also heating up at the political level. US Defence Secretary James Mattis has accused China of ‘intimidation and coercion’ through its deployment of weapons systems on its artificial islands, while the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has on past occasions stated that US FONOPs ‘violated China’s sovereignty and security interests’. Likewise, the arrival of the UK’s HMS Albion was met with complaints at what was deemed by Beijing to be British ‘provocation’.

While much of this has been rendered into a routine display of dissatisfaction, China’s reaction to yesterday’s FONOP amounts to a dangerous escalation. Through a series of ‘increasingly aggressive manoeuvres’ within 45 yards (41 metres), a Chinese Luyang-class warship forced the US Navy’s USS Decatur to change course in order to prevent a collision. The Chinese vessel’s proximity appears to be the closest any Western navy ship has encountered in years; by comparison, HMS Albion was shadowed by a Chinese ship 200 metres away.

The Pentagon has labelled the Chinese Navy’s reaction as ‘unsafe and unprofessional’.  Beijing, however, paints a different picture which, in addition to the usual complaints over violation of sovereignty, seeks to portray China as a responsible actor that took ‘quick action and made checks against the U.S. vessel in accordance with the law, and warned it to leave the waters’.

The escalation takes place against a backdrop of increasingly tense Sino–US relations. While significant, the very public current trade war between China and the US is not the only source of tension. The US decision to disinvite China from this year’s Rim of the Pacific Exercise in May this year as a response to further military activities on its artificial islands in the South China Sea was followed by US sanctions against the Chinese military for purchasing Russian fighter jets and missiles.

Undoubtedly adding fuel to the fire are the increasingly close US–Taiwan relations, with a new arms deal and US warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan and China, a Taiwan Travel Act that will allow American officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan to meet with counterparts, as well as the TAIPEI Act proposed by US Senators that is aimed at helping Taiwan retain its remaining 17 diplomatic allies around the world. Most recently, US President Donald Trump has accused China of wanting to influence the upcoming US midterm elections through unfair trade practices.

These steps are part of a wider and more hawkish view of China within the Trump Administration, as outlined in the National Security Strategy, which brands China as a ‘strategic competitor’. China has refuted such claims and duly retaliated to the various twists of the US trade measures, but Beijing also responded by refusing a request for a port visit to Hong Kong by a US warship, recalling China’s navy chief Shen Jinlong from an official visit to the US, and cancelling trade talks and a visit by the Chinese vice-premier to Washington DC in September. The second round of the China-US Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, which was set to take place in mid-October, has also been postponed, although it is unclear whether this was done by Beijing or Washington.

The mood between Beijing and Washington does not seem likely to improve, and the latest near-clash in the South China Sea serves as a reminder that the island disputes are by no means over. Most worrying still is the fact that a collision was avoided this week by sudden course alteration from the US ship, and not through the use of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which the two powers signed in 2014. While CUES is non-binding, it was touted as a positive rules-based confidence-building measure to help avoid misunderstandings and accidents at sea, and was, according to observers, being employed successfully by the two navies. Yet in seems to have played no role in the PLAN’s latest behaviour.

Countries in the region – and elsewhere – are unlikely to view this episode as a peaceful PLA Navy seeking to act ‘in accordance with laws’, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson characterised it. China has sought to smooth over relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours who are concerned with Chinese assertiveness in their regional waters, including through table-top Maritime Exercises that aim to use CUES to build trust. Yet Beijing’s apparent willingness to use aggressive tactics against the region’s strongest naval power will do little to alleviate regional apprehensions, and it sets a dangerous precedent for further military encounters on the waters of the South China Sea at a time when tensions are already running high.

Veerle Nouwens is a Research Fellow in RUSI’s International Security Studies team, where her research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and wider developments in the Asia-Pacific region.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Veerle Nouwens

External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

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