China should stick to code of conduct at sea: US Navy chief

  • Admiral John Richardson says doing so would reduce the chances of an incident should the US and Chinese navies meet
  • His four-country tour of the Indo-Pacific is seen as a bid by the US to reassure its partners that is a stabilising power
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 8:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 9:31pm

United States navy chief Admiral John Richardson on Thursday said China should abide by a code of conduct for unplanned encounters at sea, as this would reduce chances of an incident or potential escalation of tensions if the two navies met.

His comments, made in Australia during his four-country tour of the Indo-Pacific, came a day after his stop in the Philippines, where he made clear the US Navy would continue patrolling the disputed South China Sea as part of its programme of freedom of navigation operations.

Last month, the Chinese missile destroyer Luoyang almost collided with the US warship USS Decatur near disputed islands in the South China Sea. The US described the move by the Chinese destroyer as unsafe, while the Chinese defence ministry said the Decatur had been warned off after venturing into Chinese waters.

Amid South China Sea tensions, what will the meeting between the US and China’s defence chiefs yield?

China and several Southeast Asian nations have conflicting territorial claims on the South China Sea. While not a claimant in the waterway, the US has repeatedly said it must patrol the waters to maintain freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes under international maritime law.

China views the US’ freedom of navigation activities as an encroachment by an outside power on its territorial waters and a threat to its sovereignty and security. In a statement earlier this month, China’s defence ministry said it would take all steps necessary to protect its sovereignty.

“We steam in the same waters as the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, and encounters happen frequently. The vast majority are conducted in accordance with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. Rarely, there is a departure from that – for example, Chinese ship behaviour with respect to the USS Decatur,” Richardson said in a press briefing by telephone from Canberra.

“We advocate for a return and consistent adherence to the Code, to minimise the chance for a miscalculation that could lead to a local incident or potential escalation,” he said.

Richardson has visited Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia, and is heading to New Zealand tomorrow. His tour comes in the wake of the first joint maritime exercise between China and Asean that concluded last week.

Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam sent ships to the exercise, while Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar sent observers. China heralded the exercise as a significant step in promoting a “community of common destiny” between China and Asean.

US promises to continue South China Sea patrols to show opposition to ‘illegitimate’ claims

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he saw two deliberate intentions in the timing of the visit.

“The first is to reassure its partners that the US is not a troublemaker as it is being construed by China, that the US is a stabilising power,” he said.

“Beyond the feel-good generated by the Asean-China joint exercises, Asean states remain wary of China and its long-term intentions. [And the second, the] US is here to reassure its partners that it will continue to maintain its stance on international law and freedom of navigation.”

At the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting in Singapore last month, Asean announced its intention to conduct joint maritime exercises with the United States in 2019. Though Richardson did not specify details, he said this exercise would complement Asean’s leadership role in regional stability.

“We look forward to engaging in this exercise with Asean,” he said. “This provides a nice completeness in terms of ASEAN’s engagement in the region.”

Richardson characterised the US presence in Pacific waters as a bid to promote its commitment to a set of rules and norms that have created stability on the high seas necessary for global economic growth.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warns US against ‘interference’ in South China Sea

“This free and open set of rules and norms have enabled tremendous growth in the region, lifting millions of people out of poverty. [We are here] advocating for those norms and rules that have enabled access to markets and free trade on navigable waterways,” he said.

“China is a growing nation engaging in strategic expansion, and we should not be surprised that their maritime activity is increasing.

“As the US remains consistently engaged in the Pacific, we will continue to see each other on the high seas.”