Hagel Criticizes Chinese Navy, Citing Near Miss

(NEW YORK TIMES 20 DEC 13) … Thom Shanker

WASHINGTON – The Chinese Navy has been “irresponsible,” and its actions risk escalating tensions with the United States, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday in the highest-level rebuke of Beijing since a Chinese warship came dangerously close to an American guided missile cruiser this month.

Naval vessels from the two countries came close to colliding in the South China Sea on Dec. 5, when a Chinese warship cut across the bow of an American cruiser, the Cowpens.

The defense secretary said that the two ships came within 100 yards of each other, and Pentagon officials disclosed that the Cowpens had to carry out emergency maneuvers to avoid hitting the Chinese vessel.

Mr. Hagel, at a Pentagon news conference, said the decision by the Chinese warship “was not a responsible action.”

“It was unhelpful,” he said. “It was irresponsible.”

“What we don’t want is some miscalculation here to occur,” Mr. Hagel added, and he warned that a near collision “could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation.”

Chinese officials said their vessel was following protocol and handled the episode in an appropriate fashion.

There is precedent for high-level concern. In 2001, a collision between a Chinese jet fighter and a Navy surveillance plane in international airspace killed the Chinese pilot, resulted in the 11-day detention of the 24-member American crew and ruptured bilateral relations for months. American officials said the Chinese pilot was flying recklessly close, a charge denied by Beijing.

The Cowpens episode, in international waters, occurred after the Chinese declared an air defense identification zone over a disputed area. That move was criticized as likely to increase tensions with Japan and South Korea, which have overlapping claims, as well as with the United States.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the rules of engagement in the region had not been amended since the near collision. But he said American forces were watching for other potential provocative action.

“We remain alert for changes in the environment,” General Dempsey said. “There are times that are more sensitive than others. And we’re in a heightened period of sensitivity, and you can count on our mariners and airmen to be aware of that.”

When the Chinese warship cut in front of the Cowpens, the American cruiser was watching China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it made its first voyage in the South China Sea from its home base in Qingdao, the headquarters of China’s North Sea Fleet.

Asked to assess the level of American concern over China’s fielding of an aircraft carrier – a refurbished older vessel bought from Ukraine – General Dempsey noted that the Chinese were “a long way from being a threat to us with their aircraft carrier.”

Senior Pentagon officials express greater concern over the Chinese military’s focus on long-range bombs and missiles designed at least in part to deny American forces’ access to waters closer to China. The Pentagon, to counter, is investing heavily in weapons and defenses to preserve the ability of American warships and warplanes to operate where they want.

Both Mr. Hagel and General Dempsey called for continued military-to-military talks with the Chinese to defuse tensions. The goal, General Dempsey said, “was to come to a common agreement about rules of behavior when we encounter each other in three particular domains: air, sea and cyber.”

American government officials have said that computer hackers operating from China – either officially or with the knowledge, and even encouragement, of the government in Beijing – have been energetically seeking to steal American national security and economic secrets by hacking computer networks in the United States.

Back to Top