US Navy ships are operating close to Chinese warships in the Western Pacific and gathering valuable information about China’s navy, but US officials worry that rising tensions could lead to riskier encounters at sea.
China’s rapid naval expansion — both in size and in activity — has alarmed rivals and been closely watched by the US military, chiefly the ships and aircraft of the US Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet.
“We operate a lot of ships in the [Philippine] Sea, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea, as does the PRC,” Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, 7th Fleet commander, told reporters in Singapore on August 16, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“So when we’re in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, it’s not uncommon to have our ships in close proximity to one another. As a matter of fact, it’s more common than not,” Thomas added.
China’s operational tempo has been “pretty high,” and the US has been keeping track of it, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said at the Surface Navy Association’s Waterfront Symposium in San Diego on August 18.
Thanks to “very good” information “based on intelligence,” US forces in the Pacific “know what we think they’re going to be doing and where they’re going to be, and we’ll make sure that we have something there to meet them or to see what they’re doing,” said Kitchener, who is commander of US naval surface forces and of the Pacific Fleet’s naval surface force.
The Navy will “pull that information back” and “look at it for the next time,” Kitchener added. “It’s a very thoughtful process that is designed to make sure we’re using the force we have and not exceeding” its capacity.
Navies often monitor other navies using warships and other intelligence-gathering ships but rarely advertise it.
The US Navy took the unusual step of highlighting the destroyer USS Mustin’s observation of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in the Philippine Sea in spring 2021 by sharing a photo of Mustin’s officers watching the carrier, which drew a formal rebuke from Beijing.
Other US ships have picked up where Mustin left off. Kitchener described a classified briefing slide with “a picture of a Chinese aircraft carrier” — either Liaoning or Shandong — “in the optical sight of a destroyer, the USS Dewey, in close.”
Kitchener credited Dewey with “flawless, precision execution” and said “most of our ships have now participated in all those operations.”
“The amount of information that we get on those collections, from observing their flight operations and their capabilities, is invaluable as we crank it back into what we’re doing,” Kitchener said, describing a process in which that information is evaluated and countermeasures are developed and then tested in war games around the world.
It’s a “pretty well informed and a pretty good process from what I can see,” Kitchener said, adding that the challenge is how to distribute the highly classified results of that process among crews.
A ship’s commander and other officers may know it, “but maybe not the watchstanders, so how do we get that high-level classification to our watchstanders so they understand what they’re doing? Or do they necessarily have to understand it?” Kitchener said. “That’s a challenge that we’re looking at.”
‘A pattern and a policy’
China also closely tracks US ships. Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, commanding officer of USS Abraham Lincoln, said Chinese ships shadowed the carrier as it operated near China in January, February, and March.
Their interactions were “safe and professional,” Bauernschmidt said at a roundtable discussion this month. “Mostly they shadowed our ship just like they shadow any ship that operates in that area.”
Thomas, the 7th Fleet commander, also said interactions are “largely” professional. “We in general will communicate like you’re supposed to, in accordance with the rules of the road on bridge-to-bridge” contact.
“If you’re going to make a maneuver,” like changing course to launch planes from a carrier, “you’ll tell them,” Thomas said. “That’s the norm.”
Thomas noted that when US ships conduct freedom-of-navigation operations, Chinese ships “may be more interested” in staying between the US ship and the “feature” it’s sailing around, such as a contested South China Sea island claimed by Beijing.
“Every once in a while, there’ll be a closer pass between the ships, but again, we plan responses and we have ways to deal with this,” Thomas said. “As long as we’re communicating, as long as we’re sharing information, these evolutions will stay professional, and that’s the goal.”
“We’re not trying to escalate,” Thomas added. “We’re just trying to enforce the rules-based international order.”
US and Chinese warships have had dangerous encounters. In 2018, a Chinese destroyer sailed within 45 yards of a US destroyer in the South China Sea. US footage showed Chinese sailors preparing for a collision.
And in recent months, Chinese aircraft have been more aggressive toward foreign aircraft over the Western Pacific. In June, Canada said Chinese pilots had conducted unprofessional or risky intercepts of Canadian planes operating out of Japan. Days later, Australia said a Chinese jet released metallic chaff that went into an Australian plane’s engines during an encounter near the South China Sea.
The number of intercepts by Chinese forces that the US deems unsafe have grown “by orders of magnitude” over the past five years “to the extent now that, again, looks like a pattern and a policy and not just a decision by an individual pilot,” Ely Ratner, assistant US secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said at a think-tank event in July.