US, Vietnam navies work on preventing South China Sea incidents

The USS John McCain steams alongside a replenishment oiler during Valiant Shield drills, Sept. 16, 2016. The Yokosuka-based destroyer will participate in a Naval Engagement Activity with Vietnam, along with sailors from Destroyer Squadron 7 and the Singapore-headquartered Commander Task Force 73.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 27, 2016

The Vietnamese and U.S. navies kicked off an expanded exchange Wednesday that will include a focus on preventing unplanned hostilities among ships in contested Asia-Pacific waters.

The Naval Engagement Activity, centered in Da Nang, is a non-combat program, which largely separates it from the named exercises the Navy participates in with several other Southeast Asian nations.

The limitations come by design, as Vietnam balances its warming relations with the United States and its complicated relationship with China.

The engagement has grown considerably since the USS George Washington hosted Vietnamese officials on the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi in 2010.

The Yokosuka-based destroyer USS John S. McCain will participate, along with sailors from Destroyer Squadron 7 and the Singapore-headquartered Commander Task Force 73.

“We’ve expanded the sea phase this year to incorporate a more complex CUES event and search-and-rescue scenario,” Capt. H. B. Le, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7, said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The non-binding communications code was signed by 21 nations at a 2014 multinational symposium in China.

The agreement came after years of low-level tensions between U.S. and Chinese naval ships in the South China Sea. China holds an ambiguous claim to about 90 percent of the sea and dismissed an international tribunal ruling that largely invalidated that claim earlier this year.

China’s claim conflicts with the U.S. position of freedom of navigation in the international waters of the South China Sea, where about $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits annually.

Navy officials have told Stars and Stripes that the code, meant to reduce the possibility of a chance encounter growing into conflict, has aided relations with the Chinese navy.

Vietnam also has a vested interest in the code’s success — China’s ships are, on balance, bigger and better armed. However, China’s coast guard vessels and its fishing vessels, which critics have labeled a shadow militia, don’t follow CUES.

Vietnam has accused such Chinese vessels of repeatedly ramming and turning water cannons on Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracel and Spratly island groups, which both countries claim.

Officials in Washington and in the Navy have called on China to adopt CUES for its coast guard and fishing vessels as well, to reduce the chances of further incidents.

Some in Congress, notably Sen. John McCain, want the U.S. and Vietnam to upgrade their naval relationship beyond the current engagement. A Navy official said Wednesday that how joint training is characterized and composed is led by the Vietnamese.

The Hanoi government must factor its neighbor’s military strength and economic influence into any actions it takes in the South China Sea.

“China represents the most prominent threat to Vietnamese sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Nicholas Chapman, a Vietnam researcher at the International University of Japan, wrote earlier this month for The Diplomat website. “Nevertheless, Vietnam is clearly taking China’s militarization in the South China Sea seriously and is taking bold steps.”

Chapman pointed to Vietnam’s recent installation of EXTRA rocket systems, acquired from Israel, on five bases in the Spratly Islands. The rockets are within reach of military-capable runways and weapons that China has placed atop artificial islands it has constructed during the past few years.

Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

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