US blames China inexperience for near-collision in South China Sea

US admiral says language barriers also played role in face-off at sea

WASHINGTON - Chinese operational inexperience and communication difficulties on both sides contributed to a near-collision between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea last month.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, told a US Navy conference on Wednesday that the Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, was monitoring China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it conducted operations in international waters for the first time when the incident occurred.

The Cowpens was approached on Dec 5 by a Chinese warship that manoeuvred in front of it at a distance of about 460m, forcing the US vessel to take evasive action to avoid a collision, defence officials said.

"I believe there was... a lack of experience on some of their smaller ships, and I think we have to understand that for now," Adm Locklear told the Surface Navy Association during a question and answer session at its national symposium.

Language barriers were also a factor, Adm Locklear said, with US sailors hailing the Chinese ship in English and the Chinese having to address the Americans in sometimes limited English. "You don't know how that translation comes across," he said.

Adm Locklear said the navy had taken a hard look at what triggered the incident and communicated frankly with the Chinese about it. Each side understands the other's viewpoint, he said.

He also said China's recent test of a hypersonic missile showed its ability to rapidly roll out new technologies.

"They are better at that than we are. They get to it faster. Of course, they have different processes that allow them to get to it faster."

Adm Locklear said he was not particularly concerned about the Chinese test. But with many countries working on hypersonic systems, the technology would inevitably proliferate and confront the US Navy at some place in the world, he said.

Although China has rattled its neighbours by making aggressive territorial claims, Adm Locklear said it was important to encourage China to "come into the security environment as a productive member".

"China is going to rise. We have all known this for a long time... But the goal, the PaCom (Pacific Command) goal, my goal, is for China to eventually be a net provider of security, and not a net user of security," he said.

Claims by Beijing over most of the energy-rich South China Sea have set it directly against US allies such as the Philippines.

Philippines Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday that his country will defy new Chinese fishing rules in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and the navy will escort fishing boats to protect them if necessary.

China imposed fishing restrictions from Jan 1, requiring foreign fishing vessels to obtain approval before entering its waters.

"We will not follow its rules," Mr Gazmin told reporters.

"We still have the capability to secure them," he said, referring to the deployment of the navy to escort the country's fishing boats if needed. "There is really a need to show force because China has been very aggressive lately."



WASHINGTON - The US Navy is reshuffling its fleet of aircraft carriers in a move it says is part of a strategy to rebalance towards Asia.

The navy announced yesterday it would send the newer USS Ronald Reagan from San Diego to Japan to allow the ageing USS George Washington there to undergo routine servicing.

It would also move the USS Theodore Roosevelt from its port on the east coast of the United States to San Diego in the west.

The rotation allows the US to maintain a carrier presence in East Asia, while at the same time preserving the six carriers it has in the Pacific Ocean.

In announcing the move, the navy said it wanted to increase its presence in the Pacific. "The security environment in the Indo-Asia-Pacific requires that the US Navy station the most capable ships forward.

"This posture allows the most rapid response times possible... and brings our most capable ships with the greatest amount of striking power and operational capability to bear in the timeliest manner," it said.

The USS Ronald Reagan is regarded as the navy's most versatile fighting vessel, and it is the second newest of the US' 10 aircraft carriers after USS George H.W. Bush.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that maintaining the strong presence would deter adversaries and reassure allies: "Every time North Korea starts rattling sabres and shooting missiles, our ballistic missile defence ships are already there, are already on patrol. There is no escalation. We already have that presence."