A newly-released US Navy video of the tense encounter between a Chinese and US warship in the South China Sea in late 2018 offers an indication of how seriously the Chinese side were prepared for a collision with the US vessel in the contested waterway. In the footage of the incident, which at the time caused heated exchanges between Washington and Beijing, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy crew can be seen preparing buoys designed to absorb impact and protect the hull of their ship in the event of a collision between a Chinese Luyang destroyer and the USS Decatur. Keith Patton, deputy chairman of the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College, said the video suggested the Chinese crew believed a crash was imminent. “It could be upping the game of chicken with the PLAN warship signalling it was serious by making those preparations,” Patton said. Hu Bo, director of the Centre for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University, described the preparation of the buoys as a “natural response” ahead of a likely accident. Has the US already lost the battle for the South China Sea? The latest video was released to the South China Morning Post last week, following a freedom of information request sent last year to the US Department of the Navy. The Post first revealed footage of the tense encounter several weeks after it occurred in September 2018 , along with a transcript of communications showing how the Chinese side warned the US vessel it would “suffer consequences” if it did not change course. US officials at the time accused the Chinese vessel of carrying out an “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” by sailing within 45 yards of the US warship during a “freedom of navigation” patrol (FONOP) near the disputed Spratly Islands. Beijing, which claims historic rights to about 90 per cent of the waterway, accused the US side of “provocative actions” and violating “basic norms governing international relations” over the incident. The South China Sea, which holds massive untapped oil and gas reserves and carries about one-third of global shipping, has emerged in recent years as a major flashpoint in the escalating competition between Washington and Beijing. Beijing has constructed numerous island outposts around reefs and islets in the waters that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, allowing it to deploy missile batteries, radar systems and aircraft hundreds of miles from shore. In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal found the “nine-dash line” by which Beijing claims most of the waterway to have no basis in international law. Exclusive details and footage emerge of near collision in South China Sea Washington, which has no claims of its own but accuses Beijing of militarising international waters, conducts FONOPs near the disputed features that it says are intended to challenge China’s excessive territorial claims and keep the waters open for international shipping. Beijing has cast Washington’s patrols as a threat to its sovereignty and regional peace and security. James Homles, a professor of maritime strategy at the US Naval War College, said publicising displays of the US stance on the waterway had some strategic advantages for Washington. “There are sort of two ways to approach such demonstrations, publicly and privately,” Homles said. “Publicly meaning you publicise it in the press, etc, and privately meaning Beijing and regional governments are the audience. Either way accomplishes the legal purpose, making a statement that China’s claims are unlawful; but refraining from publicising it gives China a diplomatic advantage in that it could portray us as gradually losing out in this contest.” Hu said Washington’s increasingly visible presence in the waterway fit into its broader political and diplomatic goal of challenging the Chinese government, rather than simply reflecting efforts to uphold international maritime rules. “I am not sure about the US intention of releasing the information of its military operations,” Hu said. “But one thing is very clear: the US, with the help of media, has made FONOPs and its other military operations more politicised and strategic.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.