Maritime Matter of the Week

U.S. and Chinese Navy Ships Avoid Collision – Is There More to the Story?


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Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. is comprised of attorneys that are nationally-recognized industry leaders in the field of maritime and admiralty law. Our team of lawyers has over a century of combined experience, has successfully handled over 3,000 cases, and has recovered over 300 million dollars in damages for our clients.

Life saver Increased maritime tensions between the U.S. and China may have come to a head earlier this month after two navy vessels nearly collided in the South China Sea. A Chinese ship allegedly cut across the bow of an American vessel, almost resulting in an impact. Though accidents at sea are common, this one could have been a disaster, as the American cruiser, named Cowpens, was carrying missile weapons.

The near-maritime accident came in the wake of President Obama’s expression of disapproval with China’s decision of imposing an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. China is requiring aircrafts entering the area to file their flight plans ahead of time, but the U.S. and Japan have defied this regulation, leading to rising tensions between the nations.

Could the Chinese vessel have purposefully cut off the American cruiser or was this just a coincidence? According to reports on the incident, the Cowpens had been observing the Chinese carrier, the Liaoning, as it was making its maiden voyage in the South China Sea. The Chinese vessel, which had been accompanying the aircraft carrier, cut across the Cowpens with a distance of less than 200 yards, which is extremely close.

One navy seal reported that the ship’s maneuvers were “particularly aggressive” and “unhelpful in trying to increase cooperation between the two navies.”

But while we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions, analysts believe that there may be a connection between the aggressive vessel operation and the increasing maritime tensions. If an accident would have occurred, who knows what would have happened with the American ship.

Despite the tensions between the Chinese and American naval fleets, taking aggressive action in international waters is an extremely poor decision. What if a passenger vessel would have been sailing by? What if the missiles exploded and innocent people from both nations were harmed? There are several ways to resolve conflicts, but as experienced maritime lawyers, we know all the dangers associated with settling scores on the high seas.

Even regular boating accidents between vessels that are not carrying artillery weapons can get involved severe collisions, leading to terrible injuries. Our firm is constantly advocating on the dangers stemming from improper boat operation and negligence in open waters, including reckless operation, speeding, intoxication, and more. Maritime safety laws are enacted for a reason, which is to protect everyone from harm. To see naval crews, who should be extremely aware of maritime dangers – engaging in a dispute at sea is hard to swallow.

But this wouldn’t be the first time tensions have taken to open waters. Back in 2009, Chinese vessels harassed the American surveillance ship, Impeccable, in international waters near the same area in the South China Sea. Their aggressive tactics forced the American vessel to make an emergency change of course to avoid a collision.

In the latest incident, American officials said the Cowpens was abiding by international guidelines, but when it comes to maritime surveillance activities, there is always a fine line between what is legal and what may be interpreted as aggressive behavior. The American naval fleet argues the Chinese maritime laws are not transparent enough, while the Chinese believe the Americans are trying to spy on their defense systems, making them seem like the enemy.

Surveillance activities by the United States of Chinese military operations have always been sensitive. In 2001, an American EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in the waters off southern China, an accident that sent relations between Washington and Beijing into a freeze.

At least the American crew kept it professional, for lack of a better word. Had they retaliated, an attack could have very well ensued.

The entire incident reflects on the dire need to ensure interaction between nations in open waters is kept as professional as possible. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, professional seamanship has come into question, which can lead to altercations and then maritime accidents on both sides. Crew members should also improve communication between.

While officials from both navies meet yearly to discuss maritime rules and incidents at sea, not much has been resolved. We hope that whatever tensions are being experienced are resolved with the utmost professionalism to avoid a serious accident at sea.

The passage of vessels on the high seas is governed by the International Rules of the Road. These Rules provide which vessel has the right of way and which vessel must yield to the other vessel. It is not difficult to follow these rules. The most important rule in this situation is to avoid a collision with another vessel even if the vessel operator has to violate other rules.

The bottom line is that collisions are to be avoided.


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