China's recent announcement of an air defense zone covering
disputed islands in the East China Sea and its territorial claims in
the South China Sea have raised concerns that a minor incident in
the disputed seas could quickly escalate.
The near-miss between a U.S. guided missile cruiser, USS Cowpens,
and a Chinese warship operating near China's only aircraft carrier,
the Liaoning, last week was the most significant U.S.-China maritime
incident in the South China Sea since 2009, said security expert
Carl Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
"It is a gravely disturbing development," said Ian Storey, a
regional security analyst at Singapore's Institute of South East
"If China continues to challenge the presence of foreign naval ships
in the South China Sea, it is only a question of time before a
serious and potentially deadly incident occurs."
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.
The statement did not criticize 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 Abe himself minced no words at a later news conference.
"The air defense 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," Abe said.
Sino-Japanese tensions have risen over the past year in a
long-running dispute over Japanese-controlled islands in the East
China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing. Both countries and have
scrambled aircraft and conducted naval patrols in the area.
China and several ASEAN nations have competing territorial claims in
the energy-rich South China Sea.
The Japan-ASEAN summit is the centerpiece of a three-day regional
gathering officially billed as celebrating 40 years of diplomatic
"I would like to build an Asia-Pacific future that respects each
other's cultures and construct an economic system that is realized
not by force, but by rule of law and our efforts," Abe said at the
The U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday that the USS
Cowpens, operating in international waters in the South China Sea,
last week narrowly missed colliding with the Chinese warship.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier, which has yet to be fully armed and
is still being used as a training platform, was flanked by escort
ships including two destroyers and two frigates during its first
deployment into the South China Sea.
One of the escort ships maneuvered near the Cowpens in the incident
on December 5 and the Cowpens took evasive action.
[to top of second column]
"Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communications occurred
between the U.S. and Chinese crews, and both vessels maneuvered to
ensure safe passage," said the defense official.
The United States had raised the incident at a "high level" with
China, according to a State Department official quoted by the U.S.
military's Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Beijing has yet to comment, but China's often-nationalistic on-line
platforms were filling with debate about the near-miss. One poster
demanded the Chinese navy follow up by blazing an "independent sea
lane" to Hawaii.
Asked if the Chinese vessel was moving towards the Cowpens with
aggressive intent, a U.S. defense official declined to speculate.
"Whether it is a tactical at-sea encounter, or strategic dialogue,
sustained and reliable communication mitigates the risk of mishaps,
which is in the interest of both the U.S. and China," the official
said in an email to Reuters.
Beijing routinely objects to U.S. military surveillance operations
within its exclusive economic zone, while Washington insists the
United States and other nations have the right to conduct routine
operations in international waters.
The U.S. Navy said the Cowpens was conducting regular
freedom-of-navigation operations when the incident occurred.
China deployed the Liaoning to the South China Sea just days after
announcing its air defense zone which covers air space around a
group of tiny islands in the East China Sea that are administered by
Japan but claimed by Beijing as well.
Japanese lawmakers called China's actions "reckless and risky
measures", prompting Beijing to accuse Tokyo of being a regional
Chinese state media kept up the invective against Japan's complaints
over the air space zone on Friday, with the official Xinhua news
agency saying Abe was going to "stage again its China-is-to-blame
game" at the ASEAN summit.
"It is believed that anyone with only half a brain knows that it is
Japan who intentionally set the region on fire in the first place,"
Xinhua said in an English-language commentary.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Mari Saito and Linda Sieg
in Tokyo, Manuel Mogato in Mamila, Greg Torode in Hong Kong, Pete
Sweeney in Shanghai; writing by Michael Perry; editing by Nick Macfie)
[© 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2013 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.