As the Navy maintains its commitment to freedom of navigation operations within the South China Sea amid Chinese consternation, the prospect of a tense maritime encounter means commanders must act thoughtfully and deliberately, the Navy's top officer said last week.
Speaking Thursday at the Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C., Adm. John Richardson said that honest communication and predictable actions were the key to avoiding problems.
"If China decides to head off a freedom of navigation operation, what do you tell [ship commanders] to do?" asked event moderator and CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.
"The idea is we could give them commander's intent, but we also understand that nobody's going to get the full essence of that situation other than that commander who's on that ship exercising that operation," Richardson responded. "So what this requires, really, is a lot of conversations to be honest between commanders and their subordinates to make sure they understand, sort of, what full intent is, how you should respond, or how one should react in the face of any unanticipated situation."
Since then, China has deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracels, a move U.S. leaders have denounced as militarization, against international norms and standards.
The Navy briefly sailed the John C. Stennis carrier strike group into the South China Sea this month in what it called routine operations -- but what some have suggested was intended as a show of force in response to Chinese aggression.
On Tuesday, Beijing's foreign minister told reporters China wouldn't let other nations infringe on what it sees as its sovereign rights within the South China Sea, according to Associated Press reports.
Against the backdrop of current events, Richardson said it was important to understand the "risk calculus" that was in play.
Nonetheless, he said communication between the U.S., China and other powers was actually improving amid tensions.
"We've been working very closely with Chinese and other nations in that region to establish a rule set for encounters at sea, encounters in the air. And we've been seeing increased cooperation, increased use of that rule set," he said. "So we'll continue to advocate, again going back to the sort of rules-based approach, we've got these preplanned responses for these unplanned encounters at sea, and by and large there's more and more abiding by that rule set."
Additionally, Richardson said he worked hard to maintain strong communications with his Chinese naval counterparts so that in the event of trouble at sea they could work together to prevent "unanticipated or unwanted escalations" of conflict.
Ultimately, Richardson maintained that the risk of war with the world's other naval power players within the next decade was small.
"I want to be the world's expert at not going to war in Russia and China," he said.