WASHINGTON — The heads of the US and Chinese navies spoke with each other for just over an hour Oct. 29 in a conversation prompted by the Oct. 27 passage of a US destroyer through waters claimed by China.
Few details were released following the call, other than to confirm the admirals spoke about freedom of navigation operations, the relationship between the two navies, pending port visits, senior leader engagement and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue.
It was the first one-to-one discussion between Adm. John Richardson, US chief of naval operations, and Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, since Richardson took office in mid-September, succeeding Adm. Jon Greenert. Wu and Greenert spoke in a video teleconference (VTC) in April, and Greenert, Richardson and Wu held another VTC in August.
The VTC held Oct. 29, reportedly at the request of the Chinese Navy, was a direct result of the US decision to send the destroyer Lassen within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China on a reef in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands. The artificial island is one of at least seven construction projects intended to cement Chinese sovereignty claims in waters where several nations have territorial disputes.
The Lassen, the US Navy pointed out, also sailed through waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
A line 12 nautical miles from a country's land is widely viewed as marking its territorial boundaries.
In a statement released after Richardson and Wu spoke, the US Navy noted that "US freedom of navigation operations are global in scope and executed across a wide range of maritime claims. The operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law. Freedom of navigation operations are not a challenge to the sovereignty of land features. The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea."
Both admirals, the US Navy said, agreed to speak again via VTC later this year.
In the US, there were calls for more such demonstrations. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia and chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, issued a statement declaring that, "the United States has a clear national security interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea."
Forbes called for allied navies to join in more cruises challenging China's moves to stake out territorial claims.
"Now is the time for the United States to make clear that the Lassen's transit was not simply a one-off event, or a goal in and of itself," Forbes said.
New details about the Lassen's transit became available Oct. 30 from a US Navy source, who said the warship took steps to indicate it was making a lawful innocent passage with no warlike intent. The ship's fire control radars were turned off and it flew no helicopters, the source said. Although a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was in the area, it did not cross inside the 12 nautical mile limit.
"The Chinese naval vessels [that came out to escort the Lassen] were professional," the source said. "They shadowed the Lassen but stayed at a safe distance.
"There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy. One came out of its anchorage in the island and crossed the destroyer's bow but at a safe distance, and the Lassen did not alter course as the merchant ship circled around."
Fishing vessels in the area added to shipping traffic in the immediate area, the source said, but the ship did not have to maneuver around them. But the extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, "because they anticipated the Lassen's transit."
Several scheduled interactions between the US and China are expected to go forward despite the at-sea tensions, US sources confirmed. A three-ship Chinese naval squadron on a world tour is expected to arrive at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, on Nov. 3 – the first-ever visit by Chinese warships to a US Atlantic port.
That same day, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, is expected to arrive in China as part of a multi-nation visit.
Other exchanges, including the visits by two US destroyers to Chinese ports in coming weeks, are also expected to go forward, sources said.
In a related development, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands ruled Oct. 29 that it had jurisdiction in a case brought by the Philippines over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
While a decision is not expected until next year, China immediately condemned the move.
"The result of the ruling will by no means affect China's sovereignty and rights on the South China Sea," the Xinhua news agency reported Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin as saying in an Oct. 30 media briefing.