Despite increasing tensions between the two powers over the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Navy is set to participate in an exercise with a People’s Liberation Army vessel with the USS Stethem docking at Shanghai.
Although the United States has strong reservations with regards to Chinese actions in the region, the two navy forces are clearly not looking to enter a conflicting position. According to Bloomberg, the commanding officer of the USS Stethem says that despite all sorts of disagreements between the two states, the navies are capable of operating safely at sea.
“Sometimes countries may have some disagreements, yet our navies are able to operate safely at sea,” said Harry Marsh.
USS Stethem looking to improve relations?
The USS Stethem becomes the first naval ship to dock in China since last month’s freedom of navigation patrols by a U.S. warship. Marsh also went on to state that the Chinese and the U.S. navy maintain cordial relationships at sea.
Tensions between the two countries reached a turning point when the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation by sailing an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Lassen, which is similar to the Stethem, within 12 nautical miles of an island China built on a previously semi-submerged reef in the Spratly islands. The controversial operation was Washington’s way of challenging Beijing’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea, a claim that has been backed by a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map submitted informally to the United Nations in 2009. However, Marsh chose not to delve into details regarding Washington’s reservations about China’s activities in the South China Sea. The man in charge of the USS Stethem, however, did hint that the U.S. will continue operations like the freedom of navigation operation regularly, albeit in a very diplomatic manner.
“Freedom of navigation operations are things that we do routinely all over the world to enforce the rights and lawfulness of our international air and seas,” said Marsh. “Although we don’t talk specifically about future operations we do freedom of navigation operations nearly every single day.”
The Stethem’s visit may have caught many off guard, but the joint exercise had already been planned in October. The exercise with the PLA vessel will consist of a simulated rescue of a swimmer in the water, and both navies will use protocols agreed to under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, also known as CUES, reports Bloomberg.
“We utilize CUES every time when we operate with them when we encounter them at sea,” Marsh said. “This is not unusual. Just better practice as we move forward.”
USS Stethem just a sideshow?
U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott H. Swift was on board the visiting ship when it arrived after being invited by Chinese Vice Admiral Su Zhiqian. The duo was scheduled to meet for 30 minutes, but the time stretched to two hours as the two men discussed the various policy differences between the two states. However, the admiral stated that both parties are well aware of their responsibilities in international waters.
“We acknowledged the policy differences between our two countries, but we have a responsibility as maritime commanders that friction points in policy don’t become friction points at sea,” the admiral said in an interview with reporters on the Stethem. “As you would expect in any deepening relationship, you would focus on those areas that you have in competition: It’s the same in my relations with my wife,” he said. “I would love it if our whole relationship was built on those areas where we are completely in agreement and collaborative on.”
The docking of the Stethem is part of an annual exchange of ship visits agreed between the United States and China for vessels to dock at each other’s ports. This year, three American navy ships have already docked in China, while Chinese ships have docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and San Diego.
China had reproached U.S. actions after Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea in October. Meanwhile, China has stated that its efforts aimed at transforming reefs and low-lying rocks into islands have been modest at best and have been done while keeping peace and stability in the South China Sea intact.
USS Stethem visit not a defining point in U.S.-China relations
However, it is clear that the recent meeting between the two admirals was not aimed at bringing up the touchy subject of the South China Sea and was more about maritime matters. The American admiral also revealed that the Chinese vice admiral did not entertain the question of whether Beijing will introduce an air defense zone over the South China Sea like it did over the East China Sea in 2013. Admiral Swift, for his part, did not discuss the possibility of further freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which means that both sides are clearly sizing each other up.
It is safe to say that the American navy is dealing with China in a very careful manner and the tone used by Admiral Swift in this instance is completely different to the one that he used during his visit to Australia last month where he indirectly criticized China for viewing freedom of the seas as “up for grabs.” However, the track has changed this time around with Admiral Swift stating that Chinese and American sailors were mixing with one another rather than looking at each other with suspicion.
“I thought that was a positive development, especially in light of the Lassen,” he said.