American warships must put safety first
Recent collisions in Asian waters involving vessels belonging to the US Seventh Fleet also serve as a cautionary tale for China, which is expanding its own navy
The United States contends its warships are necessary in Asia to protect American interests and those of its allies. Yet the vessels are also increasingly being perceived by some in the region as a hazard to shipping after a fourth collision this year. The removal of Joseph Aucoin from his command as vice-admiral of the Japan-based US Seventh Fleet is therefore understandable, particularly as the two most recent incidents involved the deaths of at least a dozen American sailors. But the accidents should also serve as a lesson to Beijing, whose efforts to build a blue-water navy able to rival that of the US means its boats are being sent on missions ever-further from home.
Aucoin’s sacking came in the wake of the collision on Monday of the USS John S McCain and an oil tanker east of Singapore. In June, seven US sailors were killed when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald and a Japanese container ship ploughed into one another south of Tokyo, the previous month a guided-missile cruiser hit a South Korean fishing boat and in January, another cruiser ran aground near the Seventh Fleet’s base in Yokosuka. The string of incidents has triggered a rare one-day pause of the navy’s fleets to review operations and procedures. The navy last week blamed the accident involving the Fitzgerald on its crew’s “poor seamanship and flaws in keeping watch” and took three top officers, including the commander, off the vessel.
Such incidents shake perceptions of the abilities of the US Navy, which has the world’s most advanced warships with the latest weapons, radar and tracking systems. They are especially worrying given US President Donald Trump’s resumption of “freedom of navigation” missions by American warships near islands built by China in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Close proximity of ships from the rival navies could easily lead to a mishap and potential military conflict. The region’s navies, particularly those of China and the US, have to avoid such possibilities by boosting understanding and communication and putting in place safety mechanisms.
China has similar goals to the US: it wants a navy that can protect sovereignty and commercial and strategic interests around the world, take part in military exercises with allies and contribute to humanitarian operations. But the launch of such vessels also comes with obligations to ensure safety by abiding by high standards. Ships have to be equipped with sophisticated communications, radar and navigation systems and crews trained to properly operate them and keep watch on other vessels. With global shipping lanes busy and traffic ever-increasing, such requirements have to be strictly followed.