Bump & Grind: How a US-China Naval Dispute Might Escalate

Bump & Grind: How a US-China Naval Dispute Might Escalate
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

Are a Chinese navy ship's recent dangerous maneuvers close to a US navy destroyer in the South China Sea a prelude to further attempts to deter freedom of navigation operations through deliberate collisions at sea?

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gave a strongly worded speech on Oct. 4, accusing China of intervening in American domestic politics and commercial activities. Many considered it America’s official call to arms for a Cold War with China.

This prediction is a little presumptuous. The speech may well be part of a series of American reactions to the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou’s attempt to clash with the American destroyer the Arleigh Burke-class USS Decatur while it was exercising "freedom of navigation" rights in the South China Sea on Sept. 30.

It is open to debate exactly what the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)'s intention was in pulling so close to the American destroyer in September, but the incident was perhaps a test of the U.S. military's limit, with an eye to determining the Pentagon's resolution in continuing FONOPs in the knowledge that they are likely to lead to further such clashes.

One day before Pence’s speech, the U.S. also revealed it would conduct exercises in the Taiwan Strait, subsequently conducting a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) there with two guided missile destroyers, which went unchallenged.

As the frequency of patrols and maneuvers in the region intensifies, it is worth asking how a potential conflict between the U.S. and China might escalate, and whether history can serve up any examples as a guide.

China’s South China Sea disputes

The PLAN and the China Coast Guard have ample experience with high seas disputes. In the South China Sea, China has engaged in a long-term spat with Vietnam over island sovereignty. After the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands and the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish, both of which involved People's Liberation Army victories over Vietnamese forces and the subsequent occupation of island claims, China started using warships to serve as both police and coast guard around the islands and their seas. Chinese coast guards and navy also engage with Japanese ships around the Senkaku Islands.

Yet genuine military encounters such as those against Vietnam are rare. More common is non-weapon-based deterrence in the form of deliberate collisions or ramming, between ships at sea. Chinese coast guard ships often ram directly into Vietnamese ships, forcing them to withdraw from the disputed waters by means of squeezing.

In recent years, China has built new coast guard ships with increased tonnage, the largest of which is more than 10,000 tons – even larger than some warships – and is equipped with cannon and machine gun placements. However, the sheer size of ships such as the 12,000 ton cutters like the CCG 2901 and CCG 3901 indicates China's intention to use intimidation and the threat of collision in its skirmishes with rival navies in the South China Sea.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
China Coast Guard vessel No. 31239 sails in the East China Sea near the disputed isles known as Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in 2015. A Chinese coast guard ship equipped with what appeared to be four gun turrets was sighted near disputed islands in the East China Sea, Japan's coastguard said.
Soviet lessons

If the U.S. and China continue to move in the direction of a Cold War-esque situation, we must first understand the incident of collision between American and Soviet Union ships on the Black Sea in 1988, which is similar to the recent incident gamesmanship between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea.

At the time, the American military would often enter the Black Sea on FONOPs. Its purpose was to put pressure on the Soviet Union, which saw the Black Sea as within the scope of its territorial waters. Simultaneously, the primary home port for the Soviet Union fleet was in the south of what is now Ukraine. The American military’s frequent entries were designed to inhibit the Soviet Union fleet in the Black Sea.

In 1988, two naval ships from the United States Sixth Fleet entered the Black Sea. Yorktown, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, led the way, while the other was Caron, a Spruance-class destroyer. Both moved close to the base of the Soviet Union fleet in the Black Sea on the basis of innocent passage. The Soviet Union dispatched Serene, a Krivak-class frigate, and SKR-6, a Mirka-class frigate, to undertake interception.

The two American warships were the best of the best in that era, not only in terms of weaponry, but their tonnage was triple that of the Soviet Union ships. The displacement of a Ticonderoga-class cruiser was up to 9,800 tons, while the displacement of a Spruance-class destroyer was up to 7,000 tons. A Krivak-class frigate was 3,000 tons, while a Mirka-class frigate was merely 1,000 tons. Despite this, it was the Soviet Union navy that took the initiative to bump the U.S. fleet.

The Soviet Union’s frigate SKR-6 directly hit Caron’s port side, followed by Serene crashing into Yorktown’s port side. The Harpoon missiles racks on the American destroyers were hit and damaged. Footage of the incidents indicate that the American military simply didn’t believe the Soviet Union’s warships would dare to hit them.

First, the difference in tonnage was simply too vast; secondly, the American military didn’t believe the Soviet Union navy had the guts. As a result, a lot of American soldiers stood on the shipboard with their hands inserted in their pockets as if they were watching a stage play. When the Soviet Union’s ships eventually hit the American ships, both parties aimed their weapons at each other, but the American military soon retreated from the stalemate and returned to their home port to have the ships serviced. The incident should serve as a lesson in the importance of having friendly ports nearby to service and repair ships damaged in collisions – as the PLAN now does across the South China Sea thanks to the ongoing militarization of various artificial islands.

What's next?

These incidents suggest that collisions are the last line of defense before military action. Once this line has been crossed, military action becomes inevitable unless one side is prepared to lose face and back down.

In the South China Sea, and potentially also the Taiwan Strait, it is also not entirely clear what the U.S. response would be should the Chinese persist in aggressive actions against the U.S. and allied navies' FONOPs. In a recent conference call following a tour of the Asia Pacific, U.S. navy chief Admiral John Richardson warned that China should abide by the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to avoid the risk of a potential escalation in the conflict. For its part, China has averred that it has the right to defend its sovereign waters and will continue to do so.

For the time being, the war is confined to the media as both sides attempt to reassure that they are stabilizing powers in the region, and are acting within the law, as evidenced by the recent flurry of U.S. announcements proclaiming the importance of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Time will tell if China is prepared to up the ante at sea with further abrasive actions by its navy and coast guard.

Read Next: The Taiwan Coast Guard's South China Sea Challenge

This article was first published in the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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