My Take

American and Chinese forces need a protocol for handling incidents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 3:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 9:19am

Despite being a great film, you get sick of watching The Hunt for Red October recycled on TV. But in light of naval tensions in the South China Sea, the latest showing reminded me of something I had forgotten about military rivalry that was quite explicit in the original book by Tom Clancy.

It is that the US and Soviet navies, over several decades, evolved elaborate operational procedures to avoid triggering unnecessary and dangerous confrontations on the high seas.

This came about largely after the Cuban missile crisis, during which the two superpowers came close to a nuclear war when they had no procedures in place to de-escalate a potential conflict. One of these rules was that officers who provoked an incident without sanction by the highest authorities faced having their records blackened or the careers ended.

But as recent incidents show, it appears no similar understanding exists between the Americans and Japanese on the one side and the Chinese on the other. At best, it's a work in progress. And that makes it dangerous for everyone.

For example, in early December, the US missile-carrying cruiser Cowpens had a near-collision with an escort ship of the new Chinese carrier Liaoning. Each side has accused the other of provoking it. We will probably never know the rights and wrongs of such "he says, she says" confrontations.

But it is worrying that the Chinese state media have portrayed the encounter as almost heroic, as it inevitably does in similar incidents. The dead Chinese pilot who crashed his plane into a US military spy plane off southern China in 2001 became an instant national hero. Chinese officers who provoke such confrontations, it seems, are more likely to be lauded and promoted than penalised. Such perverse incentives should freak everyone out.

China, of course, has legitimate grievances. Americans have spied on China off its coasts for decades, whereas they would not tolerate any country doing the same off US coasts, even in international waters. Japan had its air defence zone for decades, while China had declared no such zone until November. There needs to be new accommodations and reciprocity. As the cold war showed, rivalry does not preclude them.