Military Capabilities

Confrontation between Chinese and US destroyers suggests policy shift

04 October 2018

Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (left) was conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation near the disputed Spratly Islands on 30 September when a PLAN Luyang-class destroyer (right) came within 45 yards of its bow. Source: US Navy

The recent confrontation between Chinese and US destroyers in the South China Sea suggests a policy shift by China that could further strain naval relations between the two countries and create a greater likelihood for escalation, according to US naval analysts and sources.

During what the US Navy (USN) called a freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) conducted on 30 September near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS), a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Luyang-class destroyer approached Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) at about 0830 h local time "in an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre in the vicinity of Gaven Reef", US Pacific Fleet Deputy Spokesperson Commander Nate Christensen told Jane's .

Cdr Christensen said the Chinese vessel, which "conducted a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area", approached "within 45 yards of Decatur 's bow", after which the US ship "manoeuvred to prevent a collision".

What makes this incident - and other recent maritime clashes - so disconcerting, US naval analysts and sources note, is that the USN and PLAN ships are supposed to be operating under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES): an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea between the countries.

The USN was able to persuade China to join CUES following a similar incident that occurred in the same area in December 2013. In the earlier clash, guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63) was on a solo patrol in the region and diverted to conduct an intelligence-gathering mission on initial multiship operations involving the new Chinese carrier Liaoning , ex-captain Gregory Gombert, who was Cowpens ' commanding officer at the time, told Jane's .

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