WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Thursday he was concerned about unprofessional and overly aggressive Chinese naval officers in the wake of the recent Cowpens incident.
The incident occurred Dec. 5 in the South China Sea when a Chinese vessel forced the USS Cowpens guided missile cruiser, which was operating in international waters, to maneuver in order to avoid hitting the Chinese ship, according to U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“I would probably characterize [the Chinese actions] as more as unnecessary and probably more unprofessional,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters during a press conference at the Pentagon. “I don’t know … whether it was [due to a] lack of experience.”
When the near miss occurred, the Cowpens was sailing in an area where the Chinese navy was exercising its new aircraft carrier when another Chinese vessel aggressively approached the Cowpens. Locklear said that U.S. forces in the region were not properly notified that the exercise was taking place.
“The Chinese were conducting what they claimed to be carrier operations that they believe had been properly notified. Those notification procedures were in question. And … the people [who] were on Cowpens, in fact, I’m sure were not aware of any notification of that,” Locklear said.
Locklear hopes that the Chinese navy will become more professional over time.
“We will interact with each other more in the future. My hope is that we will learn to interact — continue to learn, and to progress in the professionalism that we exhibit towards each other. This is the best way forward,” he said.
Locklear is worried that similar Chinese behavior in the East China Sea, where tensions are running high, could ignite a conflict between China and Japan.
“I am concerned … In this case, you just have primarily maritime security forces that are in and around those contested islands. But those are, you know, in many cases, those are young, you know, young [Chinese] naval officers or young civilian mariners who are out there … making those decisions. So we have to continue to encourage restraint. We have to continue to encourage professionalism,” Locklear said.
Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Locklear is right to be concerned about Chinese behavior.
“I think we’re lucky we haven’t had an accident already. This (Chinese aggressiveness at sea) has been going on for a long time. Sometimes it gets into the press … but we all know it’s been happening much more often. And you’ll hear that from [my] friends in the Navy who are talking about it,” he said.
Auslin said American restraint, motivated by a desire to avoid provocations, could have the opposite effect and actually embolden Chinese ship captains.
“They have the will to push and probe and test just how far they can take this,” Auslin said. “What usually happens is that when we do push back and we do respond — which has been always, I think, very measured — they will step back, and they’ll step back fairly quickly … The question is whether that is going to continue based on two factors: One, their level of growing confidence that they’re getting stronger; and second, their calculation that we really are not going to do anything to actually change that dynamic, and so they can continue to push. You know, that’s when you get an accident. That’s when you get a miscalculation.”
Ashley Tellis, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said China doesn’t seem inclined to follow international norms when it comes to behavior at sea.
“When you talk about professionalism … [and] how willing is the PLA Navy to follow certain rules of the road, I think there are big question marks, partly because there are no clearly understood rules of the road [from China’s perspective], and two, because the PLA navy seems to be increasingly willing to risk incidents in order to make a political point. And I think that is really the dangerous dimension of this whole set of face-offs,” Tellis said. “At the very least, the (Chinese) leadership has acquiesced to what is happening in the field because if they didn’t, I mean they would certainly be making efforts to walk what the operators are doing back. And I don’t see any such evidence (of them doing that).”
Tellis believes that incidents like the Cowpens encounter will happen again in the years ahead.
“I have absolutely no doubt that that’s where the trend lines are going because there has been no agreement (between China and other powers) on managing incidents at sea,” he said. “These are disputed waters in many cases. So it’s not clear that the Chinese have standing to do what they’re doing, but all the same, I think this is just going to continue. It’s going to increase.”
Locklear is concerned that there isn’t a good mechanism in place for him to talk to his Chinese counterparts to defuse conflicts that might arise from Chinese naval activity.
“I don’t have the ability to pick up the phone and talk directly to a … PLA navy admiral or general at the time of a crisis. And we need to work on that,” he said.