One of the US’ most senior military figures and an adviser to President Donald Trump has called for firmer rules governing naval encounters in disputed waters such as the South China Sea, where near misses between warships continue to test territorial claims and rights to “free navigation”.
“Let’s not be obstructing one another, driving our ships in front of one another, throwing obstacles in front of the ship,” Admiral John Richardson, chief of US Naval Operations, said at a meeting of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington on Wednesday. “Let’s just be biased towards making it easy.”
Richardson said the US should explore new ways to enforce the rules designed to govern encounters between navies and extend them to coastguards and maritime militias, so-called second and third sea forces that Beijing has used to advance its sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas.
The China and US navies agreed to the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a non-legally binding accord that was designed to reduce the chances of clashes between naval vessels and military aircraft and prevent maritime tensions from escalating into full-blown conflicts. The navies of 21 nations abide by the code.
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Claimants to South China Sea and East China Sea territories such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan have long complained that Beijing has used coastguard ships and militia vessels to maintain a presence, although Beijing said these ships and crews were not controlled by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Richardson said that a “consistent” US naval presence in the region – one that persisted with what it called “freedom of navigation” exercises into territory claimed by Beijing – plus a rapidly expanding PLA Navy, demanded more ways to minimise the chance of miscalculations between heavily armed warships.