A U.S. combat ship used agreed codes for unplanned encounters when it met a Chinese vessel during a recent patrol of the contested South China Sea, according to the vice chief of naval operations.
The USS Fort Worth met a Chinese military vessel near the disputed Spratly islands, Admiral Michelle Howard told reporters on Tuesday in Singapore. Its patrol this month was the first time a U.S. Littoral Combat Ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We had previously agreed with the Chinese, if we met at sea, to use code for unexpected encounters at sea,” said Howard. “Fort Worth came across one of our counterparts and they did do that, so things went as professionally as they have since that agreement was made.”
Those mechanisms — designed to avoid a confrontation between ships or planes that escalates into a broader clash — may be tested as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter advocates expanding patrols in the sea, including into a 12 nautical mile (22 kilometer) radius of reefs that China is building on.
Such actions, known as freedom of navigation challenges, could elicit protests from China and pressure it to explain the rationale for its territorial assertions.
Howard declined to say if the USS Fort Worth sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys, or give further details of the encounter. Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.