US destroyer collision: Incident worries America's allies in Asia

BANGKOK (NYTIMES) - For decades, the US Navy has served as the foremost symbol of America's power in the Asia-Pacific.

With bases from South Korea to Japan to Guam and a fleet of warships bristling with modern weaponry, it has been a physical reminder of the nation's strength and vigilance in the region to friends and foes alike.

Few images could have been as damaging to that reputation as that of the guided-missile destroyer John S. McCain limping into Singapore on Monday (Aug 21) after a pre-dawn collision with an oil tanker punched a hole in the warship's hull.

Ten sailors were missing, and on Tuesday, the Navy said divers had found the remains of some sailors in flooded compartments of the warship. A Navy statement on Monday described how water had filled the crew's sleeping quarters, machinery rooms and communications facilities.

The collision came less than two weeks after the same destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a contested atoll that China has built into a de facto military base.

The patrol was meant to challenge Beijing's expansive claims in the South China Sea and underline the United States' naval dominance of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's good, of course, to fly the US flag in the region," said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who specialises in regional security issues. "But one picture is worth a thousand words, and this picture was of a high-publicity vessel in a very bad way. Perceptionwise, that's huge."

Monday's collision occurred at a time of disarray in Washington and as the US' Asian allies have questioned its commitment to the region, especially as China's economic and military footprint grows.

Former US President Barack Obama had vowed a foreign policy tilt towards the Asia-Pacific, pursuing an enhanced military presence and lower tariffs, though with limited success.

President Donald Trump, by contrast, has signaled a retreat and challenged old friends on trade barriers and the cost of US military outposts.

Now, a string of Navy accidents on the Pacific's western edge has raised doubts about its operations, too, particularly that of its Seventh Fleet, which is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan, where the US maintains a large naval base.

Monday's accident came two months after seven sailors died when another guided-missile destroyer, the Fitzgerald, collided with a freighter off Japan.

In May, the Lake Champlain, a guided-missile cruiser, collided with a South Korean fishing vessel, but no injuries resulted from that crash.

Three months earlier, another such cruiser, the Antietam, ran aground in Tokyo Bay, gushing more than 1,000 gallons of hydraulic oil near Yokosuka.

"It drives home growing worries about a competence deficit within American organs of power under the increasingly besieged Trump administration," said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst at De La Salle University in Manila.

In response to the repeated accidents, the Navy has called for a broad investigation into the Seventh Fleet's operations, which have grown ever busier as it responds to challenges in the South China Sea and from North Korea.

All US Navy ships around the world will pause operations for a day or two to reassess seamanship and other fundamentals.

The Chinese state news media, which had accused the Pentagon this month of provoking regional conflict by sending the USS John S. McCain near Mischief Reef, seized on the collision to step up its criticism of US forays in the South China Sea.

"Why do these accidents happen again and again? The American Navy's arrogant, rude, unreasonable and egotistic attitude is the seed," said People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. "The international laws of collision avoidance are not observed, which is the root of these accidents."

In Japan, the news media worried about what a weakened Navy might mean for the United States' ability to protect the country.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, a right-leaning newspaper, quoted a Japanese naval officer expressing concern about the capacity of US troops to conduct surveillance at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea.

In South Korea, some people on social media said the collisions raised questions about the Pentagon's deployment of a new missile-defence system in the country, and others joked that an enemy could disable US destroyers by deploying container ships.

The accident occurred as America's allies in the region have been alarmed by missteps committed by Trump and his aides.

A telephone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia degenerated to the point where Trump called their discussion "unpleasant". After the President threatened North Korea with "fire and fury", his since-ousted White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, undercut him by declaring "there's no military solution" against the North's nuclear program.

Joseph Chinyong Liow, a dean at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in a recent op-ed in the The Straits Times that the US had become a "distracted power" and that turmoil in Washington had "disrupted the administration's ability to think strategically about global affairs".

"America's position of leadership has suffered as a result," he wrote.

Liow acknowledged that the Navy had stepped up patrols in the South China Sea after a lull in the early months of the Trump administration. But he argued that the administration's failure to formulate a broader strategy in the region invited "the deeper question: Just how important is the South China Sea for the US?"

As Trump has announced the US' withdrawal from major international accords, such as the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Beijing has positioned itself as a champion of globalisation's rules of engagement.

At a summit in Switzerland in January, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended free trade, implicitly rebuking Trump's protectionism.

After the collision on Monday, the Chinese state news media also declared that Beijing was making progress on establishing rules for ships navigating the South China Sea "while the US Navy is becoming a dangerous obstacle".

"The US Navy, which likes to claim its presence can safeguard 'freedom of navigation' in the South China Sea, is proving to be an increasing hindrance to ships sailing in Asian waters," China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, said in an editorial.

Even as China tries to position itself as a global good citizen, it has continued to reject an international tribunal's ruling against its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last year's judgment came after the Philippines challenged China over its claims to most of the resource-rich waterway, as well as its extensive island-building on reefs and rocks claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, among others.

Since then, however, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who took office shortly before the ruling, has edged towards China's embrace.

The Philippines may be bound to the US through a defence treaty, but Duterte said on a visit to Beijing last year that it was "time to say goodbye" to the US. He has scaled back joint exercises with the Navy while welcoming China's promises to develop local infrastructure.

Vietnam recently appeared to back down in a diplomatic standoff with China, suspending a gas-drilling project in disputed waters. Some analysts suggested that concern about US commitment to the region led it to defer to Beijing.

China enjoys clout in Asia in part because it is the largest trading partner for many nations in the region. Beijing's economic might has lured smaller countries such as Laos and Cambodia into its orbit, and they have responded by scuttling forceful criticisms of China's expansion in the South China Sea from Asean - the South-east Asian regional grouping.

The recent Navy collisions may prod some US allies towards strengthening their own militaries. Earlier this year, Thailand's ruling junta, which has sharply increased military spending, pushed through an order for Chinese submarines.

For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, shedding strict limits on the military's activities - a product of the nation's postwar reliance on Washington for its defence - has long been a goal.

"Psychologically, Japan has to feel that we have to catch up or make up for the vacuum in the US deterrence capability," said Takashi Kawakami, professor of international politics and security at Takushoku University in Tokyo.

Thayer, the Asia-Pacific security expert, said: "The US Navy is still very powerful, but its aura of invincibility has taken a huge hit. American credibility in the region has taken a big hit."