On September 30th, Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73) had an encounter with a Chinese warship, with the two vessels being as close as 45 yards to one another, according to US Navy officials.
At about 8:30 a.m. local time, Decatur was conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOps) in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Luyang-class destroyer approached Decatur, which was operating within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands, Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman was cited by Usni News.
“The (People’s Republic of China) PRC destroyer conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area. The PRC destroyer approached within 45 yards of Decatur’s bow, after which Decatur maneuvered to prevent a collision,” Christensen said.
“At approximately 0830 local time on September 30, a PRC LUYANG destroyer approached USS DECATUR in an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea,” said Capt. Charlie Brown, a U.S. Pacific Fleet Spokesman. The Chinese Navy “destroyer conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for DECATUR to depart the area,” Brown added.
“The PRC destroyer approached within 45 yards of Decatur’s bow, after which Decatur maneuvered to prevent a collision,” said Brown.
Decatur’s route passed near the artificial islands China has constructed in the South China Sea. The islands are not recognized by international law. In July 2016, the UN International Tribunal in the Netherlands ruled that China has no right of claim over the South China Sea and the artificial islands are illegal, however Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the country would not comply with the decision and the UN body has no right to meddle in Chinese affairs.
Decatur has previously crossed paths with Chinese destroyers in the South China Sea. Two years ago, a Luyang-class destroyer observed Decatur operating near Chinese holdings near Triton and Woody Islands in the Paracel Islands, which China calls Xisha. At the time, a Chinese Ministry of Defense release complained Decatur violated China’s sovereignty.
“US Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea. As we have for decades, our forces will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” according to Christensen, referring to the most recent freedom of navigation operations.
At the same time, the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is also operating in the South China Sea. The ARG/MEU recently completed a Defense of the Amphibious Task Force (DATF) drill at sea, including live firing crew-served weapons from USS Wasp (LHD-1).
“The DATF rehearsal demonstrated the full integration of Marine Corps and Navy capabilities showcasing the intensity of joint firepower available to defend Wasp, and our forces, in a wide range of combat situations,” Col. Robert Brodie, the commanding officer of the 31st MEU, said in a statement. “Our ironclad Blue-Green partnership allows us to continuously hone our lethality through training and exercises, in preparation for any operation.”
This all follows the flight of B-52 bombers above the South China Sea on September 25th. Beijing’s response was jet fighters and bombers from the Chinese military carried out live-fire exercises over the same area. Aircraft from the Southern Theater command of the People’s Liberation naval air force conducted “live fire shooting drills” at a sea range in the South China Sea, according to the People’s Daily official newspaper, which released photos from a broadcast by state-run CCTV.
All of these developments are part of sharp escalations that began with the US-initiated trade war with China and have now spilled in other areas of interest, such as strategical objectives. According to an unnamed US official, China has cancelled the annual diplomatic and security dialogue planned for mid-October. The reason was supposedly that there was no senior Chinese military official available to meet with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.