|Smoke billows from the Haikou's main deck gun during a training exercise. Gao Yi / for China Daily|
Chinese warship, US cruiser came close to collision in South China Sea
The navies of China and the United States should reinforce their communication and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific to reduce the risk of conflict amid Beijing's maritime buildup and Washington's rebalancing in the region, observers said.
The comments were made after the US Pacific Fleet said on Friday the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship maneuvering nearby, Reuters reported.
China's amphibious dock ship was less than 500 meters from the US warship when the encounter happened "in international waters" in the South China Sea on Dec 5, a US defense official was quoted as saying.
"Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communications occurred between the US and Chinese crews, and both vessels maneuvered to ensure safe passage," he said.
The USS Cowpens was operating near China's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Flanked by escort ships, including two destroyers and two frigates, the Liaoning has been in the South China Sea for exercises since the end of November.
The US raised the latest incident at a "high level" with the Chinese government, according to a State Department official quoted by the US military's Stars and Stripes newspaper.
The Chinese government has not yet officially commented on the confrontation.
Experts said it was not the first time that US reconnaissance activities in the South China Sea have caused confrontations, and they called for a sound bilateral framework to manage divergences.
Fan Jishe, a US studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the incident was very dangerous because any miscalculation would have led to a collision that would in turn have caused a major bilateral crisis.
"It is a relief that both sides exercised restraint this time, as there are channels for maritime consultation between the two sides," Fan said. He added that previous incidents in the past decades had traumatized Sino-US ties.
Su Hao, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said China's action was necessary for protecting its maritime rights and interests, which were seriously violated by the US.
"China has demonstrated its determination and capability to resist any unfriendly moves in the South China Sea. After all, the Chinese took action only after the US vessels refused to comply with warnings," Su said.
The confrontation was the most significant maritime incident between the two countries in the South China Sea since 2009, when a Chinese submarine collided with an underwater sonar array being towed by the USS John McCain.
Experts said that the risk of clashes between China and the US are high as the "going-out" Chinese navy will inevitably meet its active US counterpart in the region, which it considers subject to its sphere of influence.
Zhang Diancheng, a military commentator, said China needs to develop a strong offshore navy that can conduct combat missions in blue water to safeguard its maritime development and expanding trade.
Su said, through this incident, Washington needs to realize that there have been changes in the power balance between the two countries.
"The US has to acknowledge the fact that Chinese military forces have grown stronger, and re-evaluate its strategies given the overall Sino-US relations, instead of simply imposing containment," Su said.
On the same day as the incident, US Vice-President Joe Biden was on a two-day visit to Beijing amid high regional tensions in East Asia due to a spat over China's designation of its Air Force Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
"Washington is willing to manage differences with Beijing in a constructive manner and avoid letting them affect bilateral ties," Biden said while meeting with President Xi Jinping.
Experts said the US has long been conducting near-shore reconnaissance against the Chinese navy's normal military exercises and disturbing them under the justification of free navigation in international waters.
Zhang said US surveillance activities regardless of warnings from China aim to accelerate the US military deployment in the region in compliance with its rebalancing strategy.
Fan said Washington's enthusiasm in collecting China-related intelligence in the South China Sea reflects its growing concern with China's reinforced military power.
"Meanwhile, these actions have the symbolic meaning that the US is trying to brag about its presence in the region and that it has the ability to enter China's exclusive economic zone," he said.