The risk of an accident between the militaries of the US and China is growing as Washington is increasing its presence in the South China Sea and other waters in the region, The South China Morning Post reported Friday.
The Post quoted Wu Shicun, who heads the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, and is concerned that the current mechanism between the US and China for crisis management “might not be effective in critical moments.”
Wu pointed to a near-miss in 2018 between a US destroyer and a Chinese destroyer. The vessels passed within 41 meters (134 feet) of each other in the South China Sea. “Sailing within 41 meters is very dangerous. It is not that we do not have rules, but that the rules are not followed through in [a] critical moment. This is where the risk lies,” he said.
“If the same scenario happened to two nuclear submarines, this would become a huge disaster,” Wu added. The danger of a possible nuclear submarine collision was highlighted by a US submarine crashing into an object the US Navy said was an underwater mountain in the South China Sea on October 2nd. According to the South China Sea Probing Initiative, the US has sent 11 nuclear submarines to the South China Sea in 2021 alone.
More nuclear submarines are headed to the region after the US, Britain, and Australia signed a new military pact in September. The deal will give the Australians access to nuclear submarine technology, although they are not expected to be developed and enter the water until the late 2030s.
Earlier this week, the Post cited Wu in another report that said the US had conducted over 2,000 reconnaissance flights in waters near China so far this year compared with just under 1,000 in 2020. With such a high risk for an accident, Wu is calling for the US and China to work on better mechanisms to avoid conflict.
“Establishing a risk-control mechanism with the United States is very urgent. Conflicts in the military and security fields are completely different from those in the economic and trade fields,” he said.
In 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese plane about 59 miles off the coast of Hainan Island. With US-China relations at such a low point today, a similar accident could risk sparking a wider conflict.