Control near seas
The incident in the South China Sea earlier this month between the US and Chinese naval vessels did not arise out of a misjudgement on either side. It is a reflection of the unfolding contest between the American forward military presence in the Western Pacific and the Chinese desire to dominate its near seas. As the US missile cruiser Cowpens tailed China's new aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in the South China Sea, a ship accompanying the carrier moved right in front of the Cowpens in an attempt to make it stop. The captain of the American vessel had to swerve sharply to avoid a collision.
The game of chicken between US and Chinese naval and air forces will continue as Beijing flexes its new military muscle and Washington signals its resolve to stay put. The first known incident occurred in 2009, when Chinese naval vessels confronted the US surveillance ship Impeccable that was on a routine surveillance mission near the Hainan island. Since then, the Chinese navy's capabilities have grown and the Chinese political leadership's will to assert the nation's maritime rights has deepened.
The message from Beijing is that if the US wants to sustain its historic military dominance over the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the South China Sea, it must be prepared for continuous tension with the PLA Navy. And if Washington does not like the heat, it should cease its military operations in Beijing's near seas. The US is not ready to do this, not now at least.
The Cowpens might have had to change course to avoid a collision with the PLA ship, but the US is beefing up its naval presence in the Western Pacific as part of its pivot to Asia announced by President Barack Obama in 2012.