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How the US and Chinese Navies Are Trying to Avoid Accidentally Starting World War III

Until recently, there were no rules for unplanned encounters between warships in the South China Sea, one of the most contested bodies of water in the world.
Photo via Reuters

As China celebrates its victory over Japan in World War II with a much-hyped Victory Day parade, it's continuing to drift toward a new conflict in the South China Sea. But promising new developments in the relationship between the US and Chinese navies appear to be keeping things calm — at least for the moment.

Last year, China and the US brokered an agreement between 21 Pacific nations that set up guidelines for unplanned encounters between the countries' ships. As it turns out, one of the most contested bodies of water in the world had almost no well-defined rules. This left plenty of room for misinterpretations and overreactions. And in this precarious part of the world, a misinterpretation or overreaction could realistically spark World War III.


Commentators have attributed the success of the deal to the amicable relationship between outgoing US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert and Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander in chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy. But it's important to note that their partnership is all business.

"Americans in particular love to think that, 'Hey, I've created a personal relationship,' and as George W. Bush famously said about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, 'I looked into his eyes and saw his soul,'" said Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "We would like to think we do that, but even if we did see the soul of the other individual… Admiral Wu may be a fantastic individual, but he's not there as an individual. [T]his is not a free relationship."

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For example: Close friends tell each other when they're in the neighborhood. But that never happened Wednesday, when the Pentagon spotted five Chinese military ships sailing in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, during President Barack Obama's visit to the state.

Still, the South China Sea agreement — known as the "Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea" — is a good start at helping the two countries ensure their navies play nice in at least one part of the world. It offers the first clear guidelines on how warships should interact when they cross paths, something particularly necessary in the South China Sea, which has no shortage of military vessels passing through.


Until recently, the rules of the sea were governed by a loose set of protocols that were more than 30 years old. They allowed foreign states to fly over the contested waters, as well as lay cables and pipelines in another nation's Exclusive Economic Zone. And military vessels were allowed to pass through for peaceful purposes — a rule that was open to interpretation. This means that a country can, if they really want, claim that passage by a warship though its economic zone is in fact a provocation, and therefore not peaceful.

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China is trying to leverage that to its advantage. It has snatched up several manmade islands in the region, and suggested that each artificial island should warrant its own economic zone. If allowed, this would give China an unprecedented degree of command over the water. A 2012 report in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy catalogs nearly a decade of squabbles between China and other regional powers, as well as with the US — like in 2011, when China pestered Vietnamese ships conducting seismic surveys well within Vietnam's economic zone.

This is a major sticking point between the US and China. The US believes military passage through a country's Exclusive Economic Zone, including peacetime reconnaissance activities, should be allowed, says Larry Wortzel, a commissioner on the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. China, however, wants to prohibit all military activity in its zone — though they have conducted reconnaissance of their own in other nations' economic zones, including this week near Alaska.


While the greater diplomatic machines are still deciding how to proceed, Admirals Wu and Greenert have agreed on the need for open negotiations to prevent confrontations from escalating. In the spirit of this openness, Admiral Wu last month invited his soon-to-be US counterpart, Admiral John Richardson, to visit China.

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Richardson will have his work cut out for him after Greenert steps down on September 18. This past spring, Wu said that China's land-reclamation project would have no impact on the navigability of the region, and that the islands could be used for joint humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts. But that claim has already been called into question by US military commanders. So now it's up to Richardson, who's been trained at war, to find a way to ensure this situation is resolved peacefully.

That might mean sending US ships into international waters, even if China lays claim to them. In a speech on September 1, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed "deep concern" about the situation in the South China Sea, and said "the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows."

But Michael Mazza, a research fellow with American Enterprise Institute, says the US can't act alone. He says it also needs to work with partners in Southeast Asia to carry out patrols in the region, and help develop their own militaries to be able to defend themselves and enhance deterrence.

"I don't think it's inevitable that tensions boil over," Mazza said. "I think if the United States takes some of these actions sooner rather than later, that potentially leads to an increase in tensions in the near-term, but I think contributes to stability over the long-term."

Follow Jennifer Peters on Twitter: @EditrixJen