USS Cowpens Incident Reveals Strategic Mistrust Between U.S. and China

Recent Features


USS Cowpens Incident Reveals Strategic Mistrust Between U.S. and China

The potential remains for mishaps involving naval vessels and military aircraft in the South China Sea.

USS Cowpens Incident Reveals Strategic Mistrust Between U.S. and China
Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy

On November 26, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning left its homeport of Qindao, Shandong province for its first deployment to the South China Sea. The Liaoning was accompanied by two destroyers, the Shenyang and Shijiazhuang, and two missile frigates, Yantai and Weifang. The Chinese navy website reported that the carrier group would carry out “scientific research, tests and military drills.”

The Liaoning’s deployment was closely monitored in international waters by the USS Cowpens (CG-63), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.

On December 5, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship made radio contact with the Cowpens and asked it to leave the area. The USS Cowpens replied that it was in international waters and declined to change course.

The Cowpens was then shouldered by a PLAN Amphibious Dock Ship that suddenly crossed its bow at a distance of less than 500 meters and stopped in the water. The USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

The two ships made bridge-to-bridge contact to ensure safety of navigation. There were no further incidents.

A report in the Global Times provided a different account of this incident. A Chinese source “familiar with this confrontation” stated that the USS Cowpens had entered within a forty-five kilometer inner defense layer of the Liaoning carrier group. The Chinese source further charged that, “the USS Cowpens was tailing after and harassing the Liaoning formation. It took offensive actions at first towards the Liaoning formation on the day of the confrontation.”

A State Department official revealed that the incident was raised at a high level with the Chinese government.

A statement issued by the U.S. Pacific Fleet stated, “this incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap.”

An unnamed US defense official noted, “U.S. leaders have been clear about our commitment to develop a stable and continuous military-to-military relationship with China. Whether it is a tactical at-sea encounter, or strategic dialogue, sustained and reliable communication mitigates the risk of mishaps, which is in the interest of both the U.S. and China.”

Sixteen years ago the United States first proposed to China an agreement on maritime and air safety. This proposal was pursued by General John Shalikasvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he met his counterpart General Fu Quanyou, Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, in Beijing in May 1997.

The matter of a maritime and air safety agreement was raised again in October 1997 at the summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin. One outcome of this summit was an agreement to hold regular Defense Consultative Talks (DCT) and to conclude an agreement on military maritime and air safety.

The first U.S.-China DCT was held at the Pentagon three months later and both sides initialed a draft agreement on military maritime and air safety. In January 1998, the two sides formally adopted the Agreement Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety.

This agreement is usually referred to as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA). It was intended to set up a framework for dialogue to minimize the chances of accidents between U.S. and PLA forces operating in the sea and air. The first plenary meeting of the MMCA was held in Washington in July 1998.

The DCT were suspended by China following the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 and were not resumed until January 2000.

Defense Consultative Talks were suspended again for two years by the United States following the April 2001 incident in which a PLA Navy F-8 fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea. The damaged EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island.

The EP-3 incident resulted in the U.S. and China convening their first special meeting under the MMCA on Guam in September 2001 to discuss how to prevent similar incidents.

The U.S. raised the following issues: principles of safe flight and navigation for military services conducted on the high seas, international air space and Exclusive Economic Zone, and safety of ships and aircraft exercising the right of distressed entry.  The matter was then placed in the hands of an MMCA working group. No results were forthcoming over the next twelve years that might have prevented the USS Cowpens incident.

Because the MMCA talks stalled, the U.S. and China set up a Special Policy Dialogue in early 2005 to address defense policy issues not covered by the MMCA. The Security Policy Dialogue led to the establishment of formal Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) in December 2006.

U.S.-China military-to-military relations were set back again after the USNS Impeccable incident in March 2009. Since then China began tabling a demand that the United States address three obstacles in order for military-to-military relations to progress. The three obstacles include: ending arms sales to Taiwan, repealing provisions of the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting twelve areas of military cooperation, and a halt to close-in reconnaissance by U.S. aircraft and ships in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone. China also downgraded the DPCT to working level.

The informal summit meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Sunnylands in June 2013 set the stage for an improvement in bilateral military-to-military relations.

The fourteenth DCT were held in Beijing on September 9. The two sides discussed how to develop strategic trust, build on areas of cooperation including maritime safety, and enhance communications to avoid misperception. The DCT concluded by placing these issues in the hands of maritime legal experts and by agreeing to sustain bilateral dialogue.

The USS Cowpens incident reveals that after sixteen years of efforts to negotiate an agreement on maritime and air safety there is little evidence that military-to-military consultations and strategic dialogue have reduced strategic mistrust and raised transparency. A wide gulf continues to separate China and the United States and future encounters of naval vessels and military aircraft in and over the South China Sea could result in further mishaps.