US, China, and Incidents at Sea

Chinese ships harassed a U.S. ship last Sunday in the South China Sea, prompting a formal U.S. government protest.  The Chinese actions were “dangerous” and “unprofessional,” according to the Pentagon.

But a Chinese government spokesman rejected the complaint.  “The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China,” said Ma Zhaoxu of the Foreign Ministry, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

“The time is long overdue for an agreement to regulate military operations” between the two countries, writes my FAS colleague Hans Kristensen in an illuminating blog post that explains the background to the confrontation, including information about the surveillance mission of the U.S. vessel.  See “US-Chinese Anti-Submarine Cat and Mouse Game in South China Sea,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, March 9.

In fact, there is a 1998 agreement between the U.S. and China that established a “consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety.”  But it was evidently inadequate to meet the needs of this latest dispute.

If anything good could come out of this episode, it would be to provide a foundation for a negotiated agreement between the United States and China on “Incidents at Sea” like the one between the U.S. and the Russian Federation.

The origins of that 1972 Agreement date back forty years.  Prior to 1968, a recent Navy Instruction (pdf) recalled, “numerous [incidents at sea] involving harassment or interference occurred between units of the Soviet and United States Naval surface and air forces.”  But the subsequent Agreement, which provided procedures for orderly contact and dispute resolution, “greatly reduced friction between the U.S. and Soviet/Russian Navies.”  See “United States/Russian Federation Incidents at Sea and Dangerous Military Activities Agreements,” OPNAV Instruction 5711.96C, November 10, 2008.

The new Instruction provides a table of standard communication signals for use in navy-to-navy contacts.  Thus “TX2″ means “I am engaged in monitoring sea pollution” while “UY2″ means “I am preparing to conduct missile exercises.”

“ZL3″ means “your signal has been received but not understood.”

No Responses to “US, China, and Incidents at Sea”

  1. KF Groves March 10, 2009 at 5:30 PM #

    Couple of points:

    First: then of course, there’s the ‘friction’ between what the respective forces involved and their governments report after the incident to the press as to what actually happened.

    This sort of incident comes up so often, or at least comes us so often in relation to intergovernmental tensions (notoriously in the Gulf of Tonkin, recently and quite possibly meriting hilarity in the Gulf of Hormuz), one wonders why the US government doesn’t show some of that leadership that gets raised all the time, in properly recording and releasing to the public a workably complete and therefore credible record of the course of events, together with the on-site and official analysis, including consideration of any cultural ‘noise’, such that the blogosphere can sift through the premises and do the attacking and defending. The latter approach certainly seems to have worked very well in dismantling the alleged Iranian multiple missile launch a couple of years ago, as well as, to a great extent, last year’s bombing of the alleged Syrian nuke site.

    Second: That “ZL3″ thing looks extremely promising for use in wider contexts in this Age of Communication; for example, in reducing bandwidth use in blog comments, and in particular as a short form on Twitter.

  2. KF Groves March 10, 2009 at 5:55 PM #

    I’d hoped that ZL3 was unique, but on googling, it arises in a number of contexts, including but not limited to: a form of die casting using zinc and induction; a family of internal computer detection systems; and the common call letters issued to very early private ham radio operators in the area of Christchurch, New Zealand.