Saturday, December 14, 2013

US naval near-miss in South China Sea adds to tensions

Container ships sail in heavy rains as tropical storm Jebi passes nearby, in Hong Kong on August 2, 2013. Tropical Storm Jebi, which is currently in the South China Sea, is forecast to strike China and Vietnam©Getty
Japan and Southeast Asian countries called for freedom of the air and sea on Saturday, after the US revealed that one of its warships had been involved in a confrontation with a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea.
The US Navy said on Friday that the USS Cowpens, a guided-missile cruiser, had been forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a ship from the People’s Liberation Army Navy on December 5, the latest incident to add to the growing military tensions in the western Pacific. .

The US Pacific fleet said that the Cowpens had been “lawfully operating in international waters” when the near collision took place. “This incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap,” it said in a statement.
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington were not immediately available to comment.
The incident took place during the international furore over the Chinese announcement in late November of an air defence zone in the East China Sea, which angered the US and several of China’s neighbours. US vice-president Joe Biden was in Beijing on the day of the new incident, which was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
It forms part of a broader picture of sharpening military competition between China and the US in the western Pacific, an area that has been largely dominated by the US navy since the end of the second world war.
Over the past year, China has also been involved in a tense test of wills with Japan over a group of contested islands in the East China Sea.
While the idea of a military confrontation between the US and China remains only a very distant possibility, officials are worried that an individual act of brinkmanship or a miscalculation could provoke a dangerous incident.
The US and Chinese navies were involved in another potentially risky stand-off in 2009 when a Chinese naval vessel and aircraft approached the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance ship that had been monitoring submarine activity in the South China Sea not far from China’s new submarine base on Hainan island.
In 2001 a US surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was forced to make an emergency landing, also on Hainan island. The 24 members of the US crew were detained for 10 days.
China has invested heavily in its navy over the last two decades, partly to try to exert greater control over the seas that surround it which include vital maritime supply routes. In the process, China has also pushed back against what it sees as aggressive US surveillance activities near its coast.
The US navy said the Cowpens had taken part in the relief operations in the Philippines following the devastating typhoon last month.
The air defence identification zone China has established in the East China Sea is unjustly violating the freedom of aviation over the high seas - Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister
A former Pentagon official said the vessel had then been operating near an area of the South China Sea where China’s new aircraft carrier had been taking part in exercises.
As well as being angered at possible US efforts to monitor the aircraft carrier, the former official said that China might also have been registering its displeasure at the fact that two B-52 bombers had flown through China’s new air zone a week earlier in order to show that the US did not recognise the new Chinese rules.
The Pentagon has said that it is eager to establish procedures with the Chinese military about how to deal with such incidents, including the sorts of communications hotlines that were used to manage military tensions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed at a summit in Tokyo on the need for freedom of the high seas and skies and the peaceful resolution of disputes, Reuters reported.
The statement did not criticise China’s new air zone, which has triggered protests from Japan, United States and South Korea. Many ASEAN members have deep economic ties with China.
But Mr Abe minced no words at a later news conference. “The air defence identification zone China has established in the East China Sea is unjustly violating the freedom of aviation over the high seas, which is a general rule in international law. We are demanding China rescind all measures like this that unjustly violate the general rule,” Mr Abe said.

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