Just as tensions between China and the U.S. over territorial disputes in the South China Sea are heating up, the navies of the two nations are developing closer, friendlier relations.
“What we have found is at the fleet level, even when there are these diplomatic tensions, that at the navy-to-navy level, that is the area where we can work together,” said Commander William Marks, spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, aboard the flagship USS Blue Ridge on a visit to the coastal city of Qingdao, China.
The U.S. and Chinese navies are planning a joint search and rescue exercise after this week completing what Marks called a “terrific” communications drill with Chinese frigate Yancheng 546 under the auspices of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, signed in April by China, the U.S. and 19 other countries.
While the navies develop ties, the U.S. may encounter tension at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Myanmar this weekend. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to push the claimants to territory in the South China Sea to freeze activities that escalate disputes, setting up a clash with China which has recently been embroiled in confrontations with Vietnam and the Philippines in the area.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under its “nine-dash line” map first published in 1947, which extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“International law, not power or an ambiguous sense of historical entitlement, should be the basis of making and enforcing maritime claims in the South China Sea,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Michael Fuchs said July 11. He said the U.S. would propose the freeze at the Asean meeting.
“The ambiguity of some claims, such as China’s nine-dash line, and recent actions in disputed areas heighten regional tensions,” Fuchs said.
In May, Vietnamese and Chinese coast guard vessels clashed around an oil rig that China placed in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. The Philippines is seeking United Nations arbitration in a separate dispute with China over its maritime claims.
On its way to Qingdao, home port of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s North Sea Fleet, the USS Blue Ridge encountered the Yancheng 546 and communicated under the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea.
The non-binding code covers what steps should be taken to reduce interference and uncertainty during unexpected contact between naval vessels or aircraft. First floated in 2000, it aims to help avoid uneasy encounters such as that between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese military vessel in the South China Sea in December, which required maneuvering to avoid a collision.
“The USS Blue Ridge was right along side the China fleet frigate and we executed a communications drill,” said Marks. “It went terrific, it was the best one to date, that just sets the foundation for even closer relationships in the future.”
Tensions between the two navies still exist. China asserts that foreign ships don’t have the right to surveillance within its exclusive economic zone, which covers waters 200 nautical miles from its coast.
Yet last month China sent a surveillance vessel to waters off Hawaii while the country participated for the first time in the world’s largest international naval exercise, led by the U.S.
China’s action could be a sign that it will accept U.S. navy presence in its EEZ, according to Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
“It’s a recognition, I think, or an acceptance by the Chinese of what we’ve been saying to them for some time, is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s EEZs, where you have national -- your own national security interest, are within international law and are acceptable,” Locklear said July 29. “And this is a fundamental right that nations have.”