Averting a Sino-American Maritime Clash

Averting a Sino-American Maritime Clash

The U.S. military has recently acknowledged that the U.S. and Chinese navies nearly engaged in a direct military clash at the end of last month near the Japanese island of Okinawa. Although the Chinese government has denied knowledge of the incident, U.S. government sources have provided some details of the encounter, which occurred in the international waters of the East China Sea.

On Oct. 26, a Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine unexpectedly surfaced within five miles of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. The submarine was apparently rehearsing how to sink the carrier with its torpedoes and cruise missiles -- a likely mission in a future Sino-American war over Taiwan. Fortunately, the carrier and its escort ships were not conducting anti-submarine exercises at the time, which easily could have resulted in an actual exchange of fire.

Last month's confrontation resembles a similar incident twelve years ago. On Oct. 27, 1994, the Kitty Hawk and its accompanying battle group unexpectedly detected a Chinese submarine about 200 miles away in the international waters of the Yellow Sea, a region where Chinese submarines had rarely operated before. After U.S. S-3 aircraft dropped sonobuoys to track it, the Chinese responded by scrambling warplanes to the scene. During the tense three-day encounter that followed, U.S. and Chinese fighter pilots repeatedly flew within sight of each other. Although neither side publicized the incident, Chinese representatives reportedly told an American military attaché in Beijing that their forces would "shoot to kill" should a similar confrontation occur again.

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