YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan -- Apart from some very serious territorial disputes with neighboring countries, much of the naval tension surrounding China boils down to one question: Do military ships have a right to surveillance and other operations in international waters, if they are within 200 nautical miles of another nation?
Most of the world, including the United States, says yes. About 25 nations, mostly in Asia and including China, say no, to some degree.
The recent incident between the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens and a Chinese amphibious dock ship is another example of that differing viewpoint playing out, as it has multiple times since Chinese vessels surrounded the surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in 2009.
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning left its homeport on November 26 for its first deployment to the South China Sea, along with escorts resembling a U.S.-style carrier battle group.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on whether Cowpens was monitoring the group’s activities, as it normally declines to discuss intelligence gathering.
That said, the Navy hasn’t made any secret of its interest in China’s first aircraft carrier, and what its Beijing plans to do with it. With satellites, undersea listening, aircraft imagery, sonar, radar and other methods, the Navy can capably collect a lot of information on other ships from a safe distance, if it so chooses.
Cowpens, which had just finished a typhoon assistance mission in The Philippines, was in international waters on Dec. 5 when it “had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” according to a statement by the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Dec. 13.
The Chinese ship ordered Cowpens to stop and then blocked its way, forcing Cowpens to a stop, according to U.S. reports.
The Chinese version holds that Cowpens was operating in China’s waters and had come within 30 miles of the fleet’s “inner defense layer,” according to Chinese state-affiliated media reports.
Media reports cite anonymous defense officials from both countries accusing the other of harassment.
Both sides, given their view of how an exclusive economic zone functions, were right by their own standards -- even if China’s interpretation of the international laws governing EEZs garners little support.
EEZs were codified into the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, which China has signed. The United States has not ratified the law but follows most of its principles.
EEZs extend up to 200 nautical miles beyond a nation’s coast, though differing lengths have been worked out between neighboring countries.
China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea as within its EEZ, a claim disputed by nearly all of its maritime neighbors.
Beijing also reserves the right to direct foreign ships in those waters and prevent surveillance. Those practices fundamentally conflict with the United States’ view of EEZs, which comprise about one-third of the world’s waters.
The U.S. Navy views the guarantee of freedom of navigation in EEZs -- and any other international waters -- as a vital part of its global mission.
As China’s military rapidly modernizes, the clashing viewpoints are bound to cause more problems like what Cowpens experienced, according to analysts.
“I think we can safely predict more of these incidents in the future,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow with the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The U.S. and China might mitigate the chances of a similar encounter from getting out of hand, Storey said, through an agreement like the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea pact. The agreement set protocols to avoid collisions and showdowns.
However, Storey noted that the U.S. and Soviet Union both agreed that they would use international waters to watch each other, which made surveillance rules much easier to craft.
Until recently, it appeared China was ready to change its interpretation of EEZ activity.
In June, a Chinese officer told Adm. Samuel Locklear, Pacific Command chief, at a Singapore gathering of defense officials that China’s navy had conducted missions within U.S. exclusive economic zones off Guam and Hawaii, confirming an earlier report to Congress.
“We encourage their ability to do that,” Locklear told reporters at the time.
The Chinese leadership’s new approach, as explained at a forum in October, seemed to reinforce the view in Beijing that its aggressive EEZ actions were harming its image, said Paul Haenle, a retired Army foreign area officer and director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
“The Cowpens incident seems to run counter to these developments,” Haenle said. “It raises tensions and anxieties already present in the region, especially in the immediate aftermath of China’s [Air Defense Identification Zone] announcement, and questions about China’s regional intentions.”
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed during the Cowpens incident. The captain of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, who had visited the Pentagon in September, and Cowpens’ commanding officer talked over the radio and defused the situation.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday that the incident’s resolution reflected the two nations’ improving relationship between its militaries.
On Dec. 18, China’s foreign ministry issued its only official statement on the incident. It sounded a lot like Warren’s comments.
“Relations between the Chinese and U.S. militaries enjoy excellent prospects for development and both sides are willing to boost communication, coordinate closely, and work to maintain regional peace and stability,” the statement said.
The Chinese navy is still scheduled to participate in the 23-nation RIMPAC 2014 exercise in Hawaii. It will be the first time China takes part in the world’s largest maritime exercise, which is organized by the United States.
Haenle said the Chinese and U.S. militaries have made “commendable progress” within the past year, but that the Cowpens incident underscores how unsatisfactory it remains.
“Military-to-military relations remain the weakest link in the overall U.S.-China bilateral relationship because of a lack of regular communication between our militaries and deep-rooted mistrust,” he said.
Haenle suggested that China could reduce regional tensions by signing a binding code of conduct, something the U.S. would welcome and that the Association of Southeast Nations has pushed for since the 1990s.
A code of conduct could lessen the chance of a violent confrontation at sea, especially in regard to the many islands claimed by China and other countries. China has agreed to consultations on a code of conduct next year, though not necessarily to negotiations, Storey said.
Many China watchers question whether China would agree to anything substantive, because it could force China to back away from territory claimed by The Philippines, Vietnam and others.
However, China is also wary of what it terms “encirclement” by United States allies. During recent visits to Vietnam and the Philippines, Secretary of State pledged millions in aid, including $18 million to Vietnam’s coast guard for high-speed patrol vessels.
Beijing may find that giving some ground is in its interests, Haenle said.
“Otherwise, China will be the architect of its own containment, as its neighbors could continue to balance against it,” Haenle said.