A transcript of communications between the Chinese and U.S. warships that narrowly avoided collision in the South China Sea a month ago has been released, along with new footage showing the Chinese Luyang destroyer’s approach within a couple dozen yards of the U.S.S. Decatur. The documents and footage were published by the South China Morning Post, which obtained them through a freedom of information request.
“You are on a dangerous course,” the Luyang says to the Decatur as it closes in from behind. “If you don’t change course your [sic] will suffer consequences.”
The U.S. ship responded that it was conducting “innocent passage,” but was according to officials forced to change course because of the dangerous proximity between itself and the approaching Luyang.
The incident occured in the hotly-contested waters surrounding the Spratly islands, which form an archipelago near the coasts of China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The Spratlys, along with the Paracels to the north, have been the site of Chinese military encroachments against their supposed neutrality in the region, and such routine U.S. patrols are seen as provocations against China’s claims.
“The United States has repeatedly sent military ships to South China Sea islands and its adjacent waters, threatened China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaged the relations between the two countries and militaries, and endangered regional peace and stability,” said Senior Colonel Wu Qian at the time, a spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry.
U.S. officials called the encounter “unsafe and unprofessional,” citing the “aggressive” nature of the maneuvers taken by the Chinese vessel. The Decatur’s captain says that he was forced to redirect his course in order to avoid a collision between the two ships.
The incident is a frightening illustration of the heightening tension in the South China Sea region, which is patrolled by a number of countries’ militaries, including those of Britain and Japan. According to Commander Nate Christensen, a spokesperson for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the U.S. Navy has had 18 such “unsafe and/or unprofessional” encounters with the Chinese military in the Pacific region since 2016. Several of those incidents, however, occurred between Chinese fighter jets and U.S. surveillance planes, generally involving similar close calls or provocative maneuvers. “Our continued presence in the region highlights our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and demonstrates that the U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows,” Christensen said.
In its efforts to expand its control over the waters in the South China Sea, the Chinese military has for years been establishing and expanding military outposts in the region, many on artificial islands constructed for that exact purpose. The encounter between the Luyang and the Decatur took place some 12 nautical miles from the Gaven Reef, one such militarized location that the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2016 ruled did not belong to China. China nonetheless maintains seven artificial, militarized islands in the area.
China’s maritime advances are also seen as a way of hemming in the independent, self-ruled island of Taiwan, a democratic state that exists under the constant threat of annexation. China has sanctioned Taiwan, and has used its global economic leverage to dissuade most countries, including the United States, from maintaining diplomatic ties with the island.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said that the office had expressed “deep concern” to Washington after the U.S. military sent two of its warships through the Taiwan Strait at the end of October. The operation, anonymously leaked days in advance, was seen as a symbolic show of support to Taiwan from an increasingly friendly U.S. government. While the U.S. has publicly maintained its “one China policy,” it routinely sells the island billions in weapons and with the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act encourages U.S. diplomats to visit. Such overtures are made even more provocative in the context of an ever-growing trade war between China and the U.S.
Shortly after the U.S. operation, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a strong warning to the Chinese military during a visit to the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for the South China Sea and Taiwan region. “It’s necessary to strengthen the mission…and concentrate preparations for fighting a war,” Xi said, in a transcript reported in part by the South China Morning Post. “We have to step up combat readiness exercises, joint exercises, and confrontational exercises to enhance servicemen’s capabilities and preparation for war,” he continued.
“The United States is expected to conduct more freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea region,” said Zhou Chenming, a military analyst in Beijing, “and because it does not recognize [China’s] rights to artificial islands, like Mischief Reef, there will probably be more military friction between the two countries there.”
There is, of course, the constantly looming threat of a provocation by China against Taiwan (not to mention a full-scale invasion), or of a disastrous encounter in the air or sea between U.S. and Chinese troops in the region.
Xi’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, made similar remarks on the same day, warning that “repeated challenges” to Chinese control over Taiwan would lead to armed confrontation.
As it exists, Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese government. After their defeat in the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s, Kuomintang party members took control of the island as the Communist Party formed its government on the mainland.