- US and Chinese warships regularly operate in close proximity to each other in the Western Pacific.
- By and large, interactions with China’s navy and air force are professional, say U.S. Navy leaders.
- But recent aggressive actions by the Chinese military have U.S. officials fearing a more dangerous encounter.
U.S. Navy ships operate close to Chinese warships in the western Pacific, gathering valuable information about the Chinese navy, but U.S. officials say rising tensions will lead to more dangerous encounters at sea. I am concerned that it is possible.
China’s rapid naval expansion has taken rivals by surprise both in size and activity, and has been closely monitored by the U.S. military, primarily the ships and aircraft of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan.
“We operate many ships. [Philippine] China as well as the seas, the South China Sea, the East China Sea,” 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Carl Thomas told reporters in Singapore on Aug. 16, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“So it’s not uncommon for ships to be in close proximity to each other when they’re in the South or East China Sea. In fact, it’s more common than not,” Thomas added.
Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener said at the Surface Naval Association’s Waterfront Symposium in San Diego on Aug. 18 that China’s operational tempo was “pretty fast” and that the United States was tracking it. .
Thanks to “very good” intelligence-based information, “US forces in the Pacific know what they are going to do, where they are, and make sure there is something there. To meet them or see what they’re doing,” said Kitchener, commander of the U.S. Navy Surface Forces and the Pacific Fleet’s Naval Surface Forces.
The Navy has “taken that information back” and “will look into it for next time,” Kitchener added. It’s a very thoughtful process designed.”
Naval forces often use warships and other intelligence-gathering vessels to monitor other navies, but rarely advertise it.
The U.S. Navy took the unusual step of highlighting that the destroyer USS Mustin observed the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in the Philippine Sea in the spring of 2021, sharing a photo of Mustin’s officers looking at the carrier, and officially sent it from Beijing. garnered a lot of criticism.
Other US ships picked up where Mustine left off. Kitchener described a confidential briefing slide where “a picture of a Chinese aircraft carrier” (either Liaoning or Shandong) “is in visual view of the nearby destroyer Dewey.”
Kitchener praised Dewey’s “flawless and precise execution” and said, “Most of our ships participated in all these operations.”
Describing the process of evaluating that information and taking action, Kitchener said, “The amount of information we can get from these collections by observing flight operations and their capabilities is invaluable.” Developed and tested in war games around the world.
“It’s a very good, well-informed process from what I can see,” Kitchener said, adding that the challenge is how to distribute the highly classified results of that process among the crew. I added that there is.
The captain and other officers may know it, but “the watchers may not. Do you communicate the classification to the warden? Or do they necessarily have to understand it?” Kitchener said. “That’s the challenge we’re looking at.”
“Patterns and Policies”
China also closely tracks US vessels. USS Abraham Lincoln’s commanding officer, Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, said Chinese ships pursued an aircraft carrier operating near China in January, February and March.
Bauernschmidt said at a roundtable earlier this month that their interactions were “safe and professional.” “For the most part, they tracked our ships in the same way they tracked ships operating in the area.”
Seventh Fleet Commander Thomas also said the interactions were “mostly” professional. “We generally communicate as you are supposed to, following the rules of the road from bridge to bridge.”
“If you’re going to do a divert maneuver to get the plane off the carrier, I’ll tell them,” Thomas said. “That’s normal.”
Mr. Thomas said that if U.S. ships conduct freedom of navigation operations, Chinese ships will not be able to communicate effectively between U.S. ships and underway “features” such as the disputed islands in the South China Sea that Beijing claims. He pointed out that he “might be more interested” in staying with.
“Occasionally, the ships do come close to each other, but we plan to respond and we have ways to deal with this,” Thomas said. “As long as we communicate and share information, these evolutions will remain professional. That’s the goal.”
“We’re not trying to escalate,” Thomas added. “We are just trying to enforce a rules-based international order.”
US and Chinese warships had a dangerous encounter. In 2018, a Chinese destroyer sailed within 45 yards of a US destroyer in the South China Sea. US footage showed Chinese sailors preparing for a collision.
And in recent months, Chinese aircraft have become aggressive against foreign aircraft over the western Pacific. In June, Canada said Chinese pilots conducted an unprofessional or dangerous interception of a Canadian plane operating out of Japan. It released a piece of metal that had entered the engine of an Australian plane.
The number of Chinese military interceptions the US deems unsafe has increased “by orders of magnitude” over the past five years, and “again, it looks like a pattern and policy, not just a decision by individual pilots.” Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security, said at a think tank event in July.
The scale of these interceptions is “really new and really worrying,” Ratner said. Recent incidents have involved the Chinese Air Force, but “frankly, the PLA Navy probably isn’t far behind,” Ratner added. No, but I doubt it will come.”