“YOU ARE on dangerous course,” barked a Chinese sailor aboard the Lanzhou, a destroyer, over the ship’s radio on September 30th. “If you don’t change course you will suffer consequences.” The vessel picked up speed and overtook the USS Decatur, an American destroyer, which was conducting a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP, in Pentagon jargon) near reefs in the South China Sea that are claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. “We are conducting innocent passage,” insisted the Decatur. She sounded five short blasts with her whistle as the Lanzhou closed in, passing within a hair-raising 41 metres. “They were trying to push us out of the way,” notes an American sailor, narrating a video of the incident. Had the Lanzhou misjudged and smashed into the Decatur, lives might have been lost.
If the ships had collided, how would the two countries have responded? There have been several such nail-biting encounters between Chinese and American ships and aircraft. The record has not always been reassuring. James Fanell has not forgotten a moment in 2009 when he was director of intelligence for the Seventh Fleet. He was told that Chinese vessels had surrounded the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed American survey ship, in international waters near China’s Hainan island.
The Americans feared a repeat of what happened to the USS Pueblo, a vessel that was seized in 1968 by North Korean forces. In 2001 an American aircrew had been detained for 11 days on Hainan after their EP-3 spy plane had collided in mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet and made an emergency landing on the island. “Are we prepared for the Chinese to board?” asked an American admiral as he worked to manoeuvre other ships close to the Impeccable. The standoff was ended, says Mr Fanell, by an American diplomat in Beijing who was alerted while cycling through the city on a Sunday. He dashed back to the embassy and managed to raise his Chinese contacts who, luckily, proved to be useful ones.
Ten years after the Impeccable incident, American and Chinese ships and aircraft are at even greater risk of closer encounters in and over Asian waters. China has been building islands on contested rocks in the South China Sea and turning them into military outposts. America has stepped up its FONOPs. The two countries’ armed forces remain woefully ill-prepared to defuse any unexpected crises or to avoid misunderstandings that might arise from military movements.
Relations between the Chinese and American defence establishments are not as rocky as they once were. It used to be that communications were routinely broken off just when they were needed most—during crises such as those over Taiwan in 1996, America’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the EP-3 incident in 2001. Since then there have been fewer disruptions. This is partly because there have been fewer flare-ups on such a scale. But the two armed forces have also been trying harder to keep their relations steady. After Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012 he stepped up the country’s push into the South China Sea. But Mr Xi also ordered officers to strengthen ties with their American counterparts.
That led to some important agreements. In 2014 the two countries endorsed a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which China had previously rejected. Memos exchanged in 2014 and 2015 laid down clearer rules for aircraft and ships operating close to those of the other country. Among other things, these discouraged pilots from making “unfriendly physical gestures” from their cockpits. Dangerous intercepts of American aircraft by Chinese ones, common between 2011 and 2013, became rarer by 2014. “Encounters between our forces at sea and in the air are generally safe,” said Admiral Harry Harris, then America’s military chief in Asia, last year. But the Decatur’s close call showed that perils persist.
One mechanism for reducing them is the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, reached two decades ago. It has provided a forum at which mid-ranking officers can explain their version of incidents that have occurred. Some American officials complain that China uses these occasions to recite political talking points. But most of them say that the agreement plays a valuable role.
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For more urgent problems there is the Defence Telephone Link, established in 2008. This is not a hotline, says Roy Kamphausen of the National Bureau of Asian Research, a think-tank, who previously served as an American military attaché in Beijing. Rather, it is an “I’ll get back to you as quick as I can” line. The protocol for using it was streamlined in 2015, but American and Chinese officials still fax each other requests and pre-arrange calls, a process that can take days.
The two military systems face more fundamental obstacles in their efforts to communicate. America’s approach, says Mr Kamphausen, is to build trust from the bottom up, whereas for China “trust is earned at the top and conveyed downward.” And even if the head of America’s Pacific Fleet could parley instantaneously with his Chinese counterpart, other steps would be required to defuse a crisis since a Chinese navy chief cannot proceed without the approval of a political commissar, who in turn may have to consult others.
Getting to know each other better may be even trickier in these times of tension over trade and other matters. Last year General Joseph Dunford, chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, travelled to Beijing (see picture) and launched what was intended to be a regular gathering of senior generals, the Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism. But it did not reach its second birthday. China called off this year’s meeting in a huff after a row over American sanctions on a Chinese military unit involved in importing arms from Russia.
Drew Thompson of the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore, a former head of the Pentagon’s Asia desk, recalls being told that military-to-military talks with China were like watching paint dry. “I discovered that it’s more like Chinese lacquer, putting layer upon layer. Eventually it’ll be something beautiful. But the process can be slow and painful,” he says. Another crisis may erupt long before it is complete.