On Dec. 5, a Chinese warship deliberately sailed into the path of the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Cowpens as the American ship tailed China’s sole aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
The resulting near-collision is only the latest provocative move by Chinese forces as Beijing attempts to control a huge swath of the Western Pacific that is critical to Chinese shipping and contains enormous mineral reserves.
Beijing’s intention is clear, according to two experts—one a respected naval analyst, the other a retired admiral. What’s less clear is what Washington intends to do about it.
Cowpens, a California-based air-defense cruiser displacing 10,000 tons, was sailing in close proximity to Liaoning, China’s refurbished Russian-built aircraft carrier, as the flattop crossed the South China Sea under escort by Chinese warships.
Cowpens, with more than 300 sailors aboard, was probably close enough for her crew to snap photographs of the 60,000-ton-displacement Liaoning, according to retired Rear Adm. Terry McKnight. One of the Chinese carrier’s escorts blocked the cruiser’s path, “an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement.
“This incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap,” the Pacific Fleet added.
It’s unclear which of Liaoning’s escorts nearly rammed Cowpens. Lately the flattop has sailed in the company of four other vessels: the destroyers Shenyang and Shijiazhuang and the frigates Yantai and Weifang.
Cowpens was apparently operating alone—an increasingly common practice by American warships as budget cuts reduce the number of vessels the Navy can deploy, according to McKnight.
It’s obvious what Cowpens was up to. The cruiser was gathering intelligence on Liaoning, her air wing and her escorts. In November, the Chinese carrier left her normal home port of Qingdao in eastern China and sailed south for the first time for exercises in the South China Sea. Beijing has, at great expense, built a purpose-made pier for Liaoning in the southern city of Sanya.
Basing from Sanya puts Liaoning within quick sailing distance of disputed islands claimed by China and The Philippines. The U.S. has been helping to re-arm The Philippines with second-hand warships and other weapons so that Manila can defend its claims.
Indeed, the U.S. has a strong tradition of surveillance operations in the Western Pacific. American ships, submarines and aircraft routinely patrol international waters and international air space around several disputed islands claimed by China and its neighbors.
China, for its part, is making a tradition of its own—harassing American ships and planes operating legally in international zones. In 2009, Chinese trawlers sailed threateningly close to the Navy spy ships Victorious and Impeccable as they gathered intelligence near Hainan Island in China’s south.
And in 2001, Chinese jet fighters buzzed a Navy EP-3 spy plane near Hainan. A J-8 fighter accidentally struck the EP-3. The J-8 pilot died; the American crew was forced to land the damaged plane at a Chinese airfield. Beijing released the crew after 11 days—and the spy plane after four months.
Zone of influence
Most ominously, in November Beijing unilaterally declared an air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands claimed by China and Japan. The Chinese air force demanded all planes entering the zone—which is in international air space—register their flight paths with Chinese authorities.
The U.S. Air Force promptly flew two B-52 bombers through the ID zone without checking in. Japan ramped up efforts to reinforce its aerial forces near the ID zone. South Korea likewise announced its intention to acquire U.S.-made stealth fighters in order to be able to challenge Chinese moves.
Coming amid the ID zone crisis, the near-ramming of Cowpens represents a clear trend—and an escalation, according to Eric Wertheim, a naval analyst and author. “China may become less and less likely to back down,” Wertheim tells War is Boring.
Chinese aggression could compel countries such as The Philippines, Japan and South Korea to firm up their alliances with the U.S. “I think this type of behavior is also leading to arms races in the region,” Wertheim says.
Two decades ago the U.S. responded to a fit of Chinese bullying with an unambiguous demonstration of military strength. In 1996, China threatened to attack Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province of the mainland. The U.S. Navy sailed two aircraft carriers near Taiwan, blunting the Chinese threat.
Sending B-52s into the new Chinese ID zone last month was the right move, retired admiral McKnight tells War is Boring. “I thought it was great.” But Washington has not yet made similar forceful gesture in response to the assault on Cowpens—and might not respond at all. “I don’t know how hard we’re pushing,” McKnight says.
Both Wertheim and McKnight say that the Cowpens incident will not be the last collision between U.S. and Chinese forces. “Incidents such as this are likely to increase, at least in the near term,” Wertheim says.
“Everyone else is now going to look to us and see what we do,” McKnight warns.