Last Friday we reported of a freak near-incident in the South China Sea, when a US warship nearly collided with a Chinese navy vessel, operating in close proximity to China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, although details were scarce. Today, with the usual several day delay, China reported what was already widely know, admitting that "an incident between a Chinese naval vessel and a U.S. warship in the South China Sea, after Washington said a U.S. guided missile cruiser had avoided a collision with a Chinese warship maneuvering nearby." According to experts this was the most significant U.S.-China maritime incident in the disputed South China Sea since 2009. Which naturally warranted the question: whose actions nearly provoked a potential military escalation between the world's two superpowers. Not surprisingly, China's version is that it was all the US' fault.
China's Defense Ministry said the Chinese naval vessel was conducting "normal patrols" when the two vessels "met".
"During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol," the ministry said on its website (www.mod.gov.cn).
"The two Defense departments were kept informed of the relevant situation through normal working channels and carried out effective communication."
But China's official news agency Xinhua, in an English language commentary, accused the U.S. ship of deliberately provocative behavior.
"On December 5, U.S. missile cruiser Cowpens, despite warnings from China's aircraft carrier task group, broke into the Chinese navy's drilling waters in the South China Sea, and almost collided with a Chinese warship nearby," it said.
"Even before the navy training, Chinese maritime authorities have posted a navigation notice on their website, and the U.S. warship, which should have had knowledge of what the Chinese were doing there, intentionally carried on with its surveillance of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier and triggered the confrontation."
On the other hand, and just as logically, the US said it was China's fault as the US ship had to take evasive action:
Washington said last week its ship was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision.
Then again, one wonders just what a lone US warship was doing in such close proximity to China's aircraft carrier on its maiden voyage: "The Liaoning aircraft carrier, which has yet to be fully armed and is being used as a training vessel, was flanked by escort ships, including two destroyers and two frigates, during its first deployment into the South China Sea."
The United States had raised the incident at a "high level" with China, according to a State Department official quoted by the U.S. military's Stars and Stripes newspaper.
China deployed the Liaoning to the South China Sea just days after announcing its air Defense zone, which covers air space over a group of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing as well.
Leaving aside the question of what the US' response would be if a Chinese warship was circling just outside of the San Diego Naval Base, even if in "international waters", assuming China's account of the story is correct, and if indeed the US chain of command did tongue-in-cheekly suggest the creation of a modest incident (with or without escalation), then one should pay very careful attention to the development in the South China Sea, which the US apparently has picked as the next hotzone of geopolitical risk flaring.