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U.S. and China are risking a clash at sea

U.S. and China are risking a clash at sea
World
HONOLULU—From a distance, the Chinese warship warned the U.S. destroyer that it was on a “dangerous course” in the South China Sea. Then it raced up alongside. For a few tense minutes, a collision seemed imminent.

The U.S. vessel, the Decatur, blasted its whistle. The Chinese took no notice.

U.S. Navy, the Decatur, an American destroyer, which almost collided with a Chinese warship in the South China Sea in September 2018.  (PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DIANA QUINLAN / The New York Times)

Only a sharp starboard turn by the Decatur avoided a disaster that early morning in September — one that could have badly damaged both vessels, killed members of both crews and thrust two nuclear powers into an international crisis, according to a senior American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the encounter in detail.

The ships came within 45 yards of each other, marking the closest call yet as the U.S. navy contests China’s military buildup in the South China Sea. The Sept. 30 encounter signalled what U.S. commanders fear is a perilous new phase in confrontations in the disputed waterway, which are unfolding without even a Cold War-style agreement on basic rules of conduct aimed at preventing escalation.

“A game of chicken is being played around Asia’s flash points,” said Brendan Taylor, an expert on the South China Sea at the Australian National University.

“It is only a matter of time before a clash occurs,” Taylor said.

China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are expected to make an effort to calm those rising tensions and reduce the risks of miscalculation when they meet in Washington on Friday.

But the trade war and Vice President Mike Pence’s speech last month declaring that the United States would take a far tougher line on China give the two men little incentive to ease tensions in the waterway.

Neither side appears ready to back down.

The United States and China “will meet each other more and more on the high seas,” the chief of naval operations, Adm. John M. Richardson, warned after September’s near miss.

As the Trump administration pushes the Navy to do more in the South China Sea, it is doing so with fewer assets just as the Chinese are increasing theirs.

A projection by the Pentagon shows that by 2025, China’s military will have 30 per cent more fighter aircraft and four aircraft carriers compared to its current two, a senior U.S. military official said.
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