Military plays down naval 'near-miss'
Updated: 2013-12-19 00:34
By Zhao Shengnan and Wu Jiao (China Daily)
Situation 'properly handled'; defense authorities willing to improve effective communication
The Chinese military responded for the first time on Wednesday to the recent "near-miss" between warships from China and the United States in the South China Sea, saying the Chinese naval vessel was conducting "normal patrols" when the two vessels met, and it properly handled the situation in accordance with strict protocol.
"The two defense authorities have been kept informed of the situation via normal working channels and carried out effective communications after the encounter," the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement on its website.
The toned-down statement from the Chinese military coincided with an equally low-key comment from the Pentagon on Monday, which observers said showed that both sides aimed to play down the incident and to protect already fragile military ties.
The ministry's statement stressed that there were "good opportunities" for developing Sino-US military ties, saying "both sides are willing to strengthen communication, maintain close coordination and make efforts to maintain regional peace and stability".
The comments came as the US Pacific Fleet said on Friday that the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship that was escorting China's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in the South China Sea on Dec 5.
Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren said on Monday that the Chinese ship came within 500 yards of the Cowpens. But Warren said the near-miss won't affect US-China military relations.
Observers said although the US has been conducting frequent near-shore reconnaissance of Chinese naval exercises, the latest case was unusual given that the warships were so close to each other.
The last maritime friction between the two took place in 2009 when a Chinese submarine collided with an underwater sonar array towed by the USS John McCain.
Warren also told reporters at the Pentagon that "I don't think it was a crisis-level incident by any stretch. ... I don't believe tensions have heightened."
Cao Weidong, a researcher at the People's Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute, said Beijing believes the incident should not affect military ties, especially as a series of naval exchanges are around the corner.
Chinese media reported on Tuesday that despite the incident, the Chinese East Sea Fleet is preparing to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise in Hawaii. It will be the first time for China to join the world's largest multinational maritime exercise, which is led by the US.
Washington did not want to see the event escalate either, given that the US should take full responsibility if any accident had happened, said Cao.
Chinese maritime authorities had announced it would hold military activities in specific areas of the South China Sea from Dec 3 to Jan 3, 2014.
"Given that China has issued an early notice, it was the US warship that endangered itself and disturbed the Chinese activities by intruding into the exercise waters to monitor the Chinese forces," Cao said.
"And there was no so-called face-to-face confrontation: The Chinese warship was almost still when the US ship passed by it near its stern," Cao added.
The New York Times reported the Chinese ship "was particularly aggressive" and had cut across the Cowpens' bow at a distance of less than 180 meters.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier, which has yet to be fully armed and is being used as a training vessel, was flanked by escort ships including two destroyers and two frigates during its first deployment into the South China Sea.
The Liaoning's training and exercises in the Yellow and Bohai seas have been closely watched by neighboring countries and the US. Its maiden trip to the South China Sea would certainly draw more attention from the US, experts said.
Chinese officials and experts have long objected to US military surveillance of Chinese naval exercises within China's exclusive economic zone, saying such activity is one of the top obstacles to deepening military relations, and would increase the risks of clashes.
Su Hao, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said the Chinese military's response to the incident would help play down tensions, but "it also sent a clear message to Washington that the US cannot do whatever it wants within China's exclusive economic zone".
But experts warned that similar friction may happen again as the Chinese navy will inevitably meet a US counterpart that is pivoting its focus in the Asia-Pacific region. "The US has to acknowledge China's growing strength and presence in the region, and accept a more equal concept of a new-type Sino-US relationship," said Su.
The incident came amid tension in the South China Sea where some neighboring countries have competing claims over some of China's islands and waters.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that maritime disputes between countries should be resolved peacefully through arbitration, though the US would speak out when a country took unilateral action that raised the potential for conflict. In response, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday urged countries to keep their promises of being neutral over the South China Sea issue.
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Chen Weihua in Washington and Mo Jingxi in Beijing contributed to this story.