SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - A United States combat ship used agreed codes for unplanned encounters when it met a Chinese vessel during a recent patrol of the contested South China Sea, according to the vice chief of naval operations.
The USS Fort Worth met a Chinese military vessel near the disputed Spratly islands, Admiral Michelle Howard told reporters on Tuesday in Singapore. Its patrol this month was the first time a US Littoral Combat Ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
"We had previously agreed with the Chinese, if we met at sea, to use code for unexpected encounters at sea," said Howard. "Fort Worth came across one of our counterparts and they did do that, so things went as professionally as they have since that agreement was made."
Those mechanisms - designed to avoid a confrontation between ships or planes that escalates into a broader clash - may be tested as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter advocates expanding patrols in the sea, including into a 12 nautical mile (22 kilometre) radius of reefs that China is building on.
Such actions, known as freedom of navigation challenges, could elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its territorial assertions.
Howard declined to say if the USS Fort Worth sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys, or give further details of the encounter. Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.
China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea and keeping tensions down in the area is key given about half the world's merchant ships pass through the waters every year.
Freedom of navigation operations are not unusual for the US Navy, which in the year to September 2014 challenged 19 nations, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam for the way they manage their territorial waters.
China's reclamation work in the South China Sea spans "a couple thousand acres," about the size of the US Navy's Great Lakes recruiting command, which handles 30,000 to 35,000 people a year, said Howard, who was the first African-American woman to command a ship in the US Navy and the first female to hold a four-star Admiral rank.
"I think it's now time for China to talk about what the reclamation of land means," she said. "There's a purpose to it and I think in terms of helping everybody who lives in this part of the world to understand the why would be helpful for China to help explain the why."
China has "indisputable sovereignty" over territory in the South China Sea, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, said during a meeting in Beijing last weekend with US Secretary of State John Kerry. President Xi Jinping told Kerry the Pacific ocean was large enough to accommodate both China and the U.S. as major powers.
While other countries have also been building on islands in the sea, China has reclaimed nearly four times as much land as is occupied by the five other claimant states combined, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told a Senate committee last week.
"Under international law it is clear that no amount of dredging or construction will alter or enhance the legal strength of a nation's territorial claims," Russel said. "No matter how much sand you pile on a reef in the South China Sea, you can't manufacture sovereignty."