After a series of contentious encounters between US and allied ships and aircraft and China's military in the South China Sea defense officials have reached an agreement on guidelines which are intended to prevent crashes, as well as possible misunderstandings and escalation between aircraft in the region.
The new rules have been endorsed by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis seven regional military chiefs in the Pacific. Crucially this includes China’s General Wei Fenghe, who also agreed to the non-binding guidelines that were formally issued on Friday by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit hosted in Singapore. This comes as the Western Pacific has witnessed a significant uptick in military activity by air and sea, including the American and British navies.
Bloomberg summarizes the contents of the agreement as follows:
The document, which follows similar guidelines on naval encounters signed in 2014, urges military planes to establish communication with other aircraft, identify themselves and avoid maneuvers or signals that could provoke a response. “These guidelines will help reduce the likelihood of encounters or incidents spiraling into conflict in the event of a miscalculation,” it said.
Later, the full 18-member ASEAN-Plus Eight Partners grouping is expected to adopt the updated air-encounter guidelines during next year's summit. This would include countries like Australia, Russia, and New Zealand.
Speaking to reporters on the significance of the new aerial defense guidelines, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said, “Once a mishap occurs, there’s a dynamic that ensues that you cannot control.” The defense minister chaired the meetings related to the non-binding pact, and added, “We recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.”
Such mishaps have actually been close of late, and have involved the US and China, as well as the Philippines and China. Tensions have been heightened over the past two months, resulting a fierce exchange of accusations between Beijing and Washington, per Bloomberg:
The rules seek to build on the 2014 agreement signed by 21 nations on naval protocols, known as the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES. Earlier this month, the U.S. accused China’s navy of “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct after a Chinese destroyer maneuvered close to the bow of an American warship near a disputed South China Sea reef.
During that incident Chinese ships carried out what was essentially an intercept of the USS Decatur while the US ship was carrying out what has become standard "freedom of navigation" operations for the U.S. Navy - or "freeops" - in the South China Sea. The Navy destroyer had to maneuver to avoid a Chinese ship that came within 45 yards of its bow while the Decatur was sailing through the Spratley Islands on September 30th in what was the closest direct confrontation between US and Chinese ships since Trump's inauguration (after which the Navy began conducting these freeops with increasing frequency).
That particularly dangerous incident of a near collision followed a series of American B-52 bomber flights over the South China Sea in the two months prior — all of which resulted in radio warnings from the Chinese military. One August B-52 incident involved Beijing issuing radio threats while telling the U.S. plane to "Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding," according to a CNN report at the time. Subsequent American flyovers of what's recognized as international waters have come with similar warnings from the Chinese military.
While the the notion of a shooting war between the US and China may seem remote to casual observers, some market observers have noted the time honored progression of economic tensions like trade wars and currency wars eventually leading to a full-on hot war.
However, Mattis has recently sought to cool tensions, as Bloomberg reports:
Mattis has sought to play down military disputes with China during the trip, which included a 90-minute meeting Friday with Wei. While Wei reaffirmed Chinese concerns about the South China Sea and Taiwan, the two sides agreed to deepen trust and let military ties play a stabilizing role in the relationship, according to the country’s defense ministry.
And further according to the Bloomberg report, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen related to reporters that he told Wei that China needed a response to such “freedom-of-navigation operations” in a way that wouldn’t escalate tensions. “General Wei’s general reply was that they are playing very close attention to it at the highest levels and we were reassured by that,” Ng said.
For the time being, we expect such tense encounters to continue as China is not going to give up it's expanded claims over vast swathes in the East and South China seas.