Near-Collision Between U.S. & Chinese Destroyers: Accident That Could Spark a U.S.-China War

on 12 February 1988 Black Sea bumping incident occurred when American cruiser USS Yorktown tried to exercise the right of innocent passage through Soviet territorial waters in the Black Sea during the Cold War. The cruiser was bumped by the Soviet frigate Bezzavetny with the intention of pushing Yorktown into international waters.

What would happen should a U.S. Navy warship collide with a Chinese vessel while demonstrating on behalf of freedom of the sea?

A similar incident like  1988 Black Sea bumping incident occurred in the South China Sea when People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 052C destroyer cut across the bow of the destroyer USS Decatur as Decatur made a close pass by Gaven Reef in the South China Sea. Estimates vary, but it appears the PLAN ship passed somewhere within 45 feet and 45 yards of its American counterpart—compelling the Decatur bridge crew to manoeuvre to avoid a collision.


Pictures released by the U.S. Navy show the two destroyers in very close proximity to one another, with the Chinese destroyer in the lead just a short distance ahead of the American destroyer. Given that the USS Decatur is 505 feet long, the distance between the two ships in the photo appears considerably closer than the 45 yards stated in news accounts. In fact, it looks more like 45 feet.


Video of a near collision between US and Chinese warships

The imagery is striking. Whatever the actual range, terming this conduct “unsafe and unprofessional”—in the U.S. Pacific Command’s anodyne phrasing—understates how close the vessels came to disaster.

By contrast, China is a power on the rise. It is asserting rulemaking authority in Asian waters and skies. No arrangement a la the Black Sea compact is on offer in Southeast Asia. Nor is there much reason to think Beijing would accept one were it offered. Quite the reverse. China is serious about making itself the suzerain of maritime Asia and is striving to lock in its status.

Hence the operations like that The pattern of Chinese actions magnifies the prospect for an actual catastrophe. The Decatur incident wasn’t the first in the genre.

In 2013 a PLAN amphibious transport cut in front of the cruiser USS Cowpens to block Cowpens out of the vicinity of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, then plying the South China Sea. But the Chinese “gator” kept a relatively safe distance during that encounter.

Think about what would ensue if a PLAN warship again cut across a U.S. Navy ship’s bow, if the American ship plunged into it, and if heavy damage and casualties resulted. This is the brave new world into which China is ushering the region.

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