The dramatic moment when a Chinese warship aggressively challenged a US destroyer in the South China Sea has been revealed in leaked images from the US Navy.
The encounter was cited this week in Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi's weekly blog as a worrying example of Chinese expansionism. The Conservatives also welcomed Australia's commitment last week to participate in freedom of navigation exercises with western allies.
The disputed South China Sea territories have been a flashpoint in Australian politics, as Senator Bernardi pointed out in his blog. Former Labor defence spokesman Steven Conroy spoke in support of the pro-western position, but was contradicted controversially by then Labor senator Sam Dastyari with a pro-China message. Former Senator Dastyari's connections with influential Chinese donors was ultimately exposed and led to his resignation from parliament.
The Australian reports that the pictures published in the gCaptain blog, show the US and Chinese warships coming dangerously close before the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur manoeuvred away to avoid collision.
The Pentagon said the Chinese ship conducted an “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” near the USS Decatur, coming as close as 45 metres, as it sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in a freedom-of-navigation operation.
The reefs are part of the Spratly Islands, which Beijing calls the Nansha Islands and which it claims as Chinese territory.
“A [People’s Republic of China] Luyang destroyer approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea,” Captain Charles Brown, a spokesman for US Pacific Fleet, said in a statement.
Australia has warned Beijing that the use of “intimidation or aggressive tactics” was “destabilising and potentially dangerous” after reports of the manoevre.
With tensions between the nations worsening, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis announced he would abandon a planned visit to Beijing while Beijing refused a request for a US warship to make a port call at Hong Kong and cancelled plans for its naval chief to visit the Pentagon.
The setbacks in US-China relations came amid a worsening trade war as Donald Trump declared he was unwilling to hold talks with China because Beijing was not prepared to cede ground in a dispute that has seen the US slap tariffs on $US250 billion of Chinese goods. “Frankly, it’s too early to talk,” the US President said. “Can’t talk now because they’re not ready … Because they’ve been ripping us for so many years.”
The naval confrontation is another sign of how the trade war is souring other areas of the US-China relationship. It comes after China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, warned at the UN last week that relations between the two countries could “break like glass”.
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