US, China, and Incidents at Sea

03.10.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Chinese ships harassed a U.S. ship last Sunday in the South China Sea, prompting a formal U.S. government protest.  The Chinese actions were “dangerous” and “unprofessional,” according to the Pentagon.

But a Chinese government spokesman rejected the complaint.  “The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China,” said Ma Zhaoxu of the Foreign Ministry, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

“The time is long overdue for an agreement to regulate military operations” between the two countries, writes my FAS colleague Hans Kristensen in an illuminating blog post that explains the background to the confrontation, including information about the surveillance mission of the U.S. vessel.  See “US-Chinese Anti-Submarine Cat and Mouse Game in South China Sea,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, March 9.

In fact, there is a 1998 agreement between the U.S. and China that established a “consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety.”  But it was evidently inadequate to meet the needs of this latest dispute.

If anything good could come out of this episode, it would be to provide a foundation for a negotiated agreement between the United States and China on “Incidents at Sea” like the one between the U.S. and the Russian Federation.

The origins of that 1972 Agreement date back forty years.  Prior to 1968, a recent Navy Instruction (pdf) recalled, “numerous [incidents at sea] involving harassment or interference occurred between units of the Soviet and United States Naval surface and air forces.”  But the subsequent Agreement, which provided procedures for orderly contact and dispute resolution, “greatly reduced friction between the U.S. and Soviet/Russian Navies.”  See “United States/Russian Federation Incidents at Sea and Dangerous Military Activities Agreements,” OPNAV Instruction 5711.96C, November 10, 2008.

The new Instruction provides a table of standard communication signals for use in navy-to-navy contacts.  Thus “TX2” means “I am engaged in monitoring sea pollution” while “UY2” means “I am preparing to conduct missile exercises.”

“ZL3” means “your signal has been received but not understood.”