Near-Collisions at Air and Sea Show China’s New Recklessness

If US forces hadn’t shown restraint, scores of lives could have been lost. Wars have started for less. 

By Fletcher Dean Emeritus James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO Admiral (Retd.) 

Watching the grainy video of a Chinese destroyer in the Taiwan Strait swerve up the port side of a US Navy destroyer, the Chung-Hoon, and then dangerously cut across her bow at high speed almost made my heart stop. 

A couple of decades ago, I commanded a sister ship to the Chung-HoontheUSSBarry; I was a young navy commander and a sea captain for the first time. I can imagine the anxiety of the commander on the Chung-Hoonwho was exercising innocent passage through the strait and had every right to be there under international law. I’m sure the ship was at general quarters — all hands at battle stations — ready for any eventuality.

It was cowboy ship handling last week on the part of the commander of the Chinese ship, and it was the kind of incident that could easily have led to a collision and multiple deaths. The Chung-Hoon had the right of way but maneuvered radically to avoid the collision. Just imagine the consequences if it had plowed ahead and struck the Chinese vessel broadside. With hundreds of sailors on the two ships, dozens or more could have been killed. Wars have unfolded over smaller incidents.

In the novel I co-wrote a couple of years ago with Elliot Ackerman, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, we chose to start the conflict of the title with an incident in the South China Sea. The Chinese responded to perceived US aggression and sank several Navy destroyers — including the Chung-Hoon. The US hit back with larger strikes, and a mutual push up the ladder of escalation led to a nuclear conflict. Fiction? Let’s hope so.

The Chung-Hoon’s nautical close call followed an equally arresting aerial challenge a few days earlier, in which a high-speed Chinese fighter aircraft flew within a few hundred yards of a slow-moving US surveillance plane, which was operating legally in international airspace. With two incidents in as many weeks, this is starting to become a very dangerous situation.

Both sides need to remember that the operators of those jets or on the bridge of destroyers are not seasoned diplomats. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is not flying up there; it is Goose and Maverick of Top Gun, or their Chinese equivalents. The operators of these warships and planes are generally young, spirited, determined to impress their seniors and fiercely loyal to their nations. And they have hundreds of millions of dollars of lethal technology at their fingertips.

Even as military tensions rise, national leaders on both sides are vocal and engaged, making speeches their subordinates read carefully. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu (who is under US sanctions), both gave sharply worded speeches at the Shangri-La security conference in Singapore last weekend, airing their discontent with the other side.

The US, correctly, is castigating China for refusing to even have a dialog between the defense chiefs; by contrast, China criticized the US for seeking to create a “NATO in the Pacific,” which is nonsense. Both sides appear to be talking past each other.

Not all is discouraging. Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns, who is emerging as America’s secret weapon internationally, made a solo visit to China last month. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reportedly had good talks in Vienna a couple of weeks ago with his Chinese counterpart.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported that Blinken plans to visit China in the coming weeks for talks with top officials, possibly including President Xi Jinping. There have been conversations about future trips there by the secretary of commerce, Gina Raimondo, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. While Xi has been mostly silent, US President Joe Biden has been vocal about lowering tensions. Taiwan — the epicenter of disagreement between the US and China — is poised for elections early next year, with the possibility of gains among those wanting better relations with Beijing.

But big doors swing on small hinges. At the height of the Cold War, a popular novel was published, and a powerful film followed, called The Bedford Incident.  Set in the icy waters of the north Atlantic, it was about a crisis at sea involving an American anti-submarine destroyer, USS Bedford, and a Russian submarine. Nuclear war is narrowly averted.

Now China and the US may be heading into similar danger.

Both sides need to dampen the rhetoric, institute at-sea and in-air operational protocols like the US and Soviet Union had in the Cold War (mandatory standoff distances, prohibitions on fire-control radars and torpedo doors opening, etc.), and above all start talking at the ministerial level. At the same time, they must communicate to the young women and men on the front lines that more restraint would be a very good thing.

(This post is republished from Bloomberg Opinion.)

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