HONOLULU - The risk of an accidental armed clash between China and the United States in the South China Sea is "still pretty low", says Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, Director of Operations of the US Pacific Command.
The greater risk was a clash between civilian vessels of different countries, he said at the Pacific Command's headquarters in Hawaii, from where the 51-year-old commands five of the US Navy's 10 aircraft carriers, about 2,500 military aircraft and up to 400,000 military personnel.
"I think these are professional navies," the Admiral said in remarks that come after after a series of high-profile stand-offs in South-east Asia over fishing rights.
"The highest risk is associated with non-military vessels who have poor… communications systems on board. Anywhere in the world my worst maritime experiences have been with fishing boats. And this is nothing to do with any one country."
His comments to The Straits Times were made at a briefing to journalists visiting under the East West Centre's Jefferson Fellowship programme.
Since last year, Indonesia has impounded and destroyed fishing boats of other countries including China. Vietnamese fishermen have complained of being rammed by Chinese vessels. There have also been recent incidents involving Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Taiwan over fishing vessels in the South China Sea and Malacca Strait.
The scramble by the region's fishing fleets for steadily declining fish comes on top of disputes over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, adding a dangerous ingredient to the mix, analysts say.
China claims most of the South China Sea. Several Asean countries, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, also claim parts of the resource-rich area, which is one of the world's top shipping lanes.
Beijing has stepped up land reclamation and expanded islands in the waters. This has included building airstrips and stationing military assets.
Various claimants, which also include Taiwan and Malaysia, had reclaimed 215 acres (86 ha) of land in the disputed area over 40 years, Admiral Montgomery said, flashing up satellite images on a screen in a conference room inside the Pacific Command building.
China had reclaimed 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) in the past 18 months, he said.
US warships have conducted freedom of navigation operations in the area - which China has called provocative.
But he said China's navy was very professional in terms of seamanship. "We have a mechanism for discussing these things, resolving them and that contributes to an overall professional relationship between the militaries," he said.
"We have a weekly e-mail on our military-to-military dialogue and there is a significant amount of interaction."
The Admiral cited the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, a set of procedures endorsed by naval leaders from more than 20 countries at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in April 2014 in the Chinese city of Qingdao.
CUES provides standards for communication, safety procedures and manoeuvring for naval ships and aircraft encountering each other.
"We are investigating trying to include coast guards because we think they will be valuable," he said.