Though the reports of threats are just coming out of China this week, U.S. Navy forces briefly tangled with a Chinese destroyer last September during an encounter in the South China Sea. The two ships allegedly came close to making accidental contact with each other as the USS Decatur conducted an unrelated, non-confrontational exercise passing through Gaven Reefs. The encounter did not lead to any use of force, but a message sent to the Decatur by China’s Luyang destroyer at the time appears to have been threatening in nature.
• It appears the near-collision began innocently with both ships engaging in solo exercises throughout the South China Sea. At some point, the Decatur sailed close to the Gaven Reef area near the Spratly Islands. Ownership of these islands is hotly disputed by the Philippines, a U.S. ally, and China.
• The Chinese Luyang-II DDG destroyer then sailed within just 45 yards of the USS Decatur, nearly colliding with them on the port side. As reported by the South China Morning Post, the Luyang then issued a warning over communication channels… and it seemed oddly threatening.
• “You are on [sic] dangerous course,” the communication record reads. “If you don’t change course your [sic] will suffer consequences.” It wasn’t immediately clear exactly what consequences the Decatur might face.
• The USS Decatur, of course, did respond, clarifying their intentions by telling the Luyang, “We are conducting innocent passage.” Yet, the Luyang continued to press up against the port side, verging close enough to the Decatur to nearly cause a catastrophic collision.
• The Luoyang eventually moved away as the USS Decatur left disputed waters, but unfortunately, it does appear that this event may have been an attempt at intimidation. While U.S. Fleet officials called the attempt to push the Decatur onto a new path “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre,” it’s clear the PRC did not feel the same way.
• China’s Defense Ministry confirmed that it found fault with the Decatur’s presence. It also admitted to assigning the Luoyang to “[make] checks against the US vessel in accordance with the law, and [warn] it to leave the waters.”
• Chinese officials oppose U.S. entry into the area surrounding the Gaven Reefs and Spratly Islands. In fact, they have dotted the area with man-made islands complete with miniature outposts, airstrips, radar domes, and missile systems in a clear effort to defend the zone from intruders. As an ally of the Philippines, it’s possible China saw the entry as a direct offense to their sovereignty.
• Bill Hayton, who works for the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House in London, called the move a direct attempt to “raise the level of antagonism.” He also commented on the severity of the response compared to past responses in the same international waters. “To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve had a direct threat to an American warship with that kind of language.”
• Hayton did state that it isn’t the first time China has responded negatively to the presence of US ships. “In the past, it just had language about “you are entering Chinese waters, keep away” or something like that. This, I think, is the first time we’ve had the idea of ‘suffering consequences.”