A recent collision involving the destroyer USS John S McCain and a Chinese submarine near the Subic Bay off the coast of the Philippines received little press coverage, largely as a result of the US playing down the incident and saying it saw no indication of harassment by Chinese.
The incident occurred on June 11, when a Chinese submarine collided with the destroyer’s sonar array, a device that tracks underwater sounds. While the US Navy has provided little specifics about the exact location of the collision, the incident is believed to have occurred 230km off Subic Bay in the Mindoro Strait, which places it in international waters. Unnamed navy officials did not specify whether the submarine was an attack boat or a ballistic-missile sub.
A few days after the collision, the US Navy confirmed that the McCain had been tracking the Chinese sub, and Chinese officials confirmed that the submarine was Chinese.
While sonar arrays are dragged by a cable than can be as long as 1.6km, the incident has nevertheless raised questions as it occurred in international waters and, in nautical terms, the submarine had come dangerously close to the destroyer.
As the Navy Times reported on June 19, while the collision follows recent incidents involving US and Chinese vessels, it did not appear to be deliberate and was not construed as Chinese harassment. More likely, as John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School said, the Chinese submarine was stalking the McCain to test its detection abilities and response.
Still, Arquilla said, “We should hear alarm bells go off every time we have incidents of this sort … What I see in this pattern of incidents is a growing capability of the Chinese to use stealthy navy assets to get close to our larger and more visible ships.”
As China’s interpretation of its so-called “Special Economic Zone” is not fixed and tends to spread outwards, this latest incident demonstrates that “accidents” will likely become more common, especially in areas disputed by Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, among others. The potential for accidents sparking more serious conflict is therefore growing exponentially, especially as China’s neighbors will likely respond to an increasingly modern and adventurous Chinese navy by modernizing their own naval capabilities and becoming equally more aggressive.
Beyond the problem of contested sea lanes and areas, this incident is the latest in a long list of indicators that the Chinese navy is becoming more capable and daring, even at a significant distance from its littoral waters. (Such experience as it has accumulated off the coast of Somalia as a participant in multinational anti-piracy efforts may already be paying dividends.) It also shows that in a Taiwan Strait contingency, the Chinese navy would be in a position to harass US and/or Japanese battle groups dispatched to the area at an increasing distance from the strait, thus severely compromising those allies’ ability to come to Taiwan’s aid — and perhaps even making them more reluctant to do so.
Aside from displaying Chinese capabilities, incidents such as this one send a signal to Washington that the seas it had long controlled will no longer be navigated unhampered.