More than 20 countries with interests in the Western Pacific region unanimously agreed to a framework maritime communication deal yesterday in what could a step toward ensuring that miscommunication between naval vessels does not develop into a conflict.
Naval officers from China and the US told reporters that the document was not meant to directly address problems — including territorial issues — pitting China against several of its neighbors in the East and South China seas.
However, incidents in those waters have raised fears of an accidental clash that could escalate into a broader conflict.
The agreement took place at a meeting of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao and its signatories include China, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia.
A late draft of the non-binding document is essentially a handbook for maneuvers and communication when naval ships and aircraft from the signing countries encounter each other unexpectedly.
Navies are told to fire off flares in green, yellow and red in different situations and given a list of English-language terms.
“The document is not legally binding, rather, it’s a coordinated means of communication to maximize safety at sea,” the draft says.
The final version has not been publicly released, but a naval official privy to the discussions said the language in the draft was close to what had been formally agreed upon.
On the sidelines of the conference, People’s Liberation Army Navy Vice Admiral Xu Hongmeng (徐洪猛) said the agreement would have a positive impact on maritime conduct, emphasizing that it was voluntary and would have no impact on conduct in the disputed waters of the East and South China seas.
“You can’t say that it’s related to the issues in the South and East China sea[s] — this is about the navies of many countries,” Xu said.
Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance on maritime security in what it sees as its territorial waters has stoked concerns, particularly as its military and civilian ships increase patrols in disputed areas.
Chinese and Japanese ships routinely shadow each other near disputed islets in the East China Sea, a development which analysts have said raises the risk of a conflict.
“The number of communications between the Japanese and Chinese defense forces is small,” Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Captain Masahiro Sakurai said, without elaborating.
The US has defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines, raising the prospect of its being drawn into a potential conflict.
The risks of a mishap were highlighted in December last year when the US guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens had to take evasive action in the South China Sea to avoid hitting a warship supporting China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier.
Washington wants clearer operational communications with Beijing’s growing naval fleet, arrangements in part hampered by different interpretations of what operations are acceptable in international waters, US naval officers have said.
It is unclear if yesterday’s agreement resolves differences rooted in different interpretations of military activity. For example, Beijing has objected to US surveillance operations near its coast, but the US says they are in international waters.
Separately, China and the 10 ASEAN countries are negotiating a binding Code of Conduct to ease tensions in the South China Sea.