US, China Deploy Cold War Code In Maritime Standoff As Pentagon Warns Of Chinese Air Threat

When last we checked in on China’s man-made island outposts in the South China Sea we got a glimpse of what life is like in the Spratlys. Here’s a visual that encapsulates how the politburo is attempting to spin Beijing’s land reclamation project:

Ridiculous propaganda aside, China has acknowledged that the islands serve a military purpose and if US intelligence is to be believed (which is always a dubious proposition, but we’ll leave that aside for now), Beijing has stationed artillery on the islands although it has since been either removed or concealed. The Pentagon continues to claim that China is threatening to disrupt sea lanes through which around $5 trillion in global trade passes each year. Additionally, US regional allies — who have overlapping maritime claims on the Spratlys — have eyed China’s activities nervously, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino going so far as to liken China to pre-war Nazi Germany. 

Now, with the World War 3 calls getting louder, the US and China have deployed a code reminiscent of a system used during the Cold War that will hopefully help both sides avoid a “miscalculation” as the two countries are now expected to “meet more often.” Bloomberg has more:

The U.S. expects further encounters at sea with China’s navy, according to the captain of a U.S. coastal combat ship that has patrolled the disputed South China Sea and met a Chinese ship last month.


The countries have agreed codes to help understand each other and talk via radio, said Commander Rich Jarrett, commanding officer of the USS Fort Worth. The language used is similar to that used 20 years ago with the Soviet Union, the U.S.’ former Cold War foe, he said.



The Fort Worth deployed the codes when it unexpectedly met a Chinese vessel near the disputed Spratly islands during a May patrol of the South China Sea. It was the first time a U.S. littoral combat ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.


“I expect that we may have a similar encounter because we’re operating in this part of the world,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday on the ship moored on the Philippines’ Palawan island. “But quite honestly I’m not sure that I’m going to do anything particularly different than what I’ve done in previous deployments.”


Tensions in the South China Sea have risen with China warning planes and ships away from reefs where it is reclaiming land. A U.S. surveillance plane was repeatedly told by radio to divert from its path last month.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says China is "rapidly closing the gap" between itself and the US in terms of air and space capabilities (which, incidentally, is just what you'd say if you wanted to campaign for increased military spending). Reuters has the story:

China is mounting a serious effort to challenge U.S. military superiority in air and space, forcing the Pentagon to seek new technologies and systems to stay ahead of its rapidly developing rival, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said on Monday.


The Pentagon's chief operating officer, speaking to a group of military and civilian aerospace experts, said China was "quickly closing the technological gaps," developing radar-evading aircraft, advanced reconnaissance planes, sophisticated missiles and top-notch electronic warfare equipment.


While hoping for a constructive relationship with China, the Pentagon "cannot overlook the competitive aspects of our relationship, especially in the realm of military capabilities, an area in which China continues to improve at a very impressive rate," he said.



China's state-run news agency Xinhua late on Monday cited Xu Qiliang, a vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, as saying China must innovate even more.


"Our military's equipment construction is shifting from catch-up research to independent innovations," Xu said.


Work made his remarks to the inaugural conference of the China Aerospace Studies Initiative, a partnership of the U.S. Air Force and the RAND Corporation think tank. The initiative aims to boost U.S. research on China's aerospace ambitions.

As a reminder, China stacks up quite well militarily, especially in terms of sheer size:

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Much as Washington and NATO are seemingly doing just about everything in their power to ensure that tensions continue to rise in Eastern Europe (right down to conducting war games specifically designed to replicate a Ukraine incursion), the Pentagon seems determined to view China's activities in what it says are its own territorial waters and the country's effor to modernize its armed forces as signs of aggression and with that in mind, we'll close with the following from the Deputy Secretary:

Work, citing a Harvard study on rising powers confronting established powers, told the conference that interactions between the two often result in war. As a result, the Defense Department must "hedge against this international competition turning more heated."