US and Chinese warships narrowly avoid collision in South China Sea

Destroyer came within 40m of USS Decatur in ‘unprofessional manoeuvre’, says US military

A Chinese destroyer came within 40m of the bow of a US Navy warship performing manoeuvres in a disputed section of the South China Sea, the latest escalation in rising tensions between the world's two biggest economies.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur was forced to carry out emergency manoeuvres to avoid a crash. The Decatur was carrying out what the US calls "freedom of navigation operations" near a Chinese man-made island in the Spratly chain in an area claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and self-ruled Taiwan.

Growing military tensions come as China and the US are engaged in a trade war, which has seen tariffs imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of each other's imports. US president Donald Trump has created further friction by accusing Beijing of trying to interfere in the mid-term congressional elections in November.

"At approximately 08.30 local time on September 30th, a PRC Luyang destroyer approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea," a spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet, Capt Charlie Brown, said in a statement.



About €4.3 billion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea every year. China claims nearly all of the area as its own, and these claims have brought into conflict with most of its neighbours, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.

China says the freedom of navigation manoeuvres pose a threat to its sovereignty.

The Gaven and Johnson reefs are part of the Spratly chain, and the Decatur had sailed within 12 nautical miles of the islands, which China has transformed into military garrisons with missile batteries, runways that can take military aircraft and radar installations.

While China insists the facilities are defensive, its neighbours see the man-made islands as part of a strategy to control the maritime area and Washington has been strongly critical of the fortification of the islands. In 2016 a panel at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague rejected China’s claims to the maritime territories.

A provocation

Under international law, foreign warships are allowed to sail in international waters without seeking permission. However, China sees the US freedom of navigation sailings through the South China Sea as a provocation and has demanded that foreign ships seek its permission to transit the area.

Tensions were already running high as the US also sent nuclear capable B-52 bombers over the waterway twice last week.

At the weekend, the Chinese cancelled a planned high-level security meeting in Beijing by US defence secretary Jim Mattis. The meeting had been scheduled for this month.

In recent weeks, China also denied a US warship permission to make a port-of-call visit to Hong Kong, and cancelled other high-level military talks in protest against the US decision to sanction China's military for buying weapons from the Russians. It is also angry about the sale of US military equipment to Taiwan, an island which Beijing sees as an inviolable part of its territory.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing