Amid worsening U.S.-China military relations, a Chinese warship in the South China Sea this week passed dangerously close to a Navy guided missile destroyer in the most provocative encounter in many months.
The incident occurred Sunday around 8:30 a.m. local time near Gaven Reef in the western part of the disputed Spratly Islands, which have been occupied and militarized by China. The USS Decatur, a guided missile destroyer, was sailing near the reef when it was approached by a Chinese navy Luyang-class destroyer.
Capt. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet, said the Chinese destroyer “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area.”
The destroyer, according to Capt. Brown, approached within 45 yards of the bow, forcing the warship to maneuver to avoid a collision.
“U.S. Navy ships and aircraft operate throughout the Indo-Pacific routinely, including in the South China Sea,” he said. “As we have for decades, our forces will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
The incident was captured by a Navy surveillance aircraft that appeared to be supporting the Decatur’s freedom-of-navigation operation near Gavin Reef. Aircraft surveillance photos, first published by the online maritime news outlet gCaptain.com and confirmed by a U.S. defense official, show the Chinese ship passing more like 45 feet — not 45 yards — in front of the Decatur. Capt. Brown said the distance in his statement was based on a report from the Decatur.
Senior defense officials have warned for years that such potentially dangerous encounters could produce a “miscalculation” — a diplomatic euphemism for a shootout that could set off a larger regional conflict.
The United States regards the South China Sea as international waters and has rejected China’s expansive claims to own some 90 percent of the sea through vague historical claims.
The disputed Spratlys, along with the northern Parcel Islands, are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other states in the region. China has built up some 3,200 acres of islands and began placing defense assets there over the past several years in a bid to assert military control over the waters, which carry an estimated $5 trillion in trade annually.
China exploited the failure of the Obama administration to push back against China’s island-building.
“Indeed, there is evidence that Chinese leaders were prepared for a more robust reaction from the United States and might have recalibrated their activities as a consequence,” Adm. Greenert wrote. “When there was no such response, the island-building campaign continued apace.”
The admiral based the comment on meetings he held while chief of naval operations with PLA navy chief Adm. Wu Shengli, who “made clear that he thought the United States would have a more forceful reaction when China began its island-building.” Adm. Wu was commander from 2006 to 2017, roughly the same period when the Obama administration largely ignored the encroachment.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director during Adm. Greenert’s tenure, said he was not surprised by the comments. Capt. Fanell said he urged tougher action after China seized the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
“Adm. Greenert supported the prior administration’s policy of appeasement and accommodation of China’s expansionism, which I had clearly assessed,” Capt. Fanell told Inside the Ring.
Adm. Greenert “made no effort to use his knowledge of the PRC’s maritime expansionism to call our nation to alarm,” he said.
EUROPEAN COMMAND ON HYBRID THREATS
Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of European Command, warned this week that Russia is stepping up its use of hybrid warfare — warfare carried out below the level of traditional armed conflict. Gen. Scaparrotti, who is also NATO’s military commander, said countering Russian hybrid warfare threats is part of a new NATO strategy he has been working on for the past year.
The four-star general said Russia is the No. 1 security threat in the region.
“They’re operating in domains, particularly below the level of war, in an aggressive way if you look at cyberactivity, the social media activity, disinformation, operating in many of the countries here in Europe in that way with basically the common theme being undermining Western values and the credibility of Western governments,” he told reporters in Warsaw on Sunday.
“And they do that in many different ways, but also including reinforcement, money to organizations and political groups on both ends of the spectrum, because really I think their view is just — I call it a destabilization campaign.”
Moscow is working in a strategic way to destabilize the governments of Europe using information warfare means. The doctrine involves using indirect means of subversion while avoiding direct military confrontation with troops.
“Their doctrine has that as a part of this indirect activity, with the idea that, if I don’t ever have to put a soldier there or ever fire a shot but I can undermine the government, then I’ve achieved my ends,” said Gen. Scaparrotti, adding that the main targets are nations in the eastern part of the NATO alliance.
Russia “wanted to keep those governments in a position where they could influence them, and this is a tactic for doing that,” he said.
Gen. Scaparrotti said NATO is working to define Russian hybrid warfare, which is largely outside of the military realm.
“This really does talk about whole-of-government approach and bringing others into it and deciding what needs to be done,” he said.
Special operations forces are engaged in dealing with hybrid warfare threats because the commandos are trained to understand it.
“They can help our nations within the alliance build their ability to identify it and counter it,” said Gen. Scaparrotti, noting that military information operations are part of the countermeasures.
Part of the hybrid warfare is the use of cyberattacks against NATO commands that have been detected and some traced to Russians, he said.
“What I secure is our unclassified and classified communications systems that we use for, you know, command and control, communications, etc., and we have attempts to breach those on a daily basis,” Gen. Scaparrotti said. “And some of those are Russian actors. There’s no doubt.”
The general said he believes the cyberattacks are “connected to the state in some cases and their intelligence apparatus.”
MATTIS ON PERSONAL FEELINGS
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week was asked to comment on growing tensions with China.
In the past week, China canceled security talks with the United States, blocked a U.S. warship from visiting Hong Kong and made an unsafe passage close to another U.S. warship in the disputed South China Sea.
China’s military is attempting to punish the Pentagon for recent sanctions imposed by the State Department on a senior Chinese general in charge of armaments for buying Russian jets through a sanctioned state arms exporter.
On his way to Europe for a NATO meeting, Mr. Mattis was asked if U.S.-China military relations are getting worse.
“There are tension points in the relationship, but based on discussions coming out of New York last week, and other things that we have coming up, we do not see it getting worse,” he told reporters. “We’re just going to have to learn how to manage this relationship.”
The retired Marine Corps four-star general was also scheduled to travel to China for a second visit this year. However, the Chinese military declined to make an appropriate high-ranking Chinese defense official available for the meeting, so it was called off.
Asked if he was disappointed that the China trip was scuttled, Mr. Mattis, known for making wry comments, replied: “No. I keep my personal feelings for my girlfriend.” It was a rare comment on personal relationships from Mr. Mattis, a lifelong bachelor.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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