In a surprising twist, it’s been revealed that Chinese and American naval personnel in the South China Sea spend a lot of time socializing with each other, according to The Guardian.
When the guided-missile destroyer, USS Lassen, breached the 12-nautical mile territory of China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, a Chinese warship that was shadowing the destroyer asked for answers.
“Hey, you are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?” it inquired, as told by Commander Robert Francis, commanding officer of the Lassen, to reporters.
His crew responded that they were functioning in accordance with international law and planned to patrol around the island, carrying out what US officials have called a “freedom-of-navigation exercise” intended to confront China’s claims to the South China Sea.
And in response, the Chinese personnel kept asking the same thing over and over again.
The Lassen had joined the carrier attack group the previous night, before a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who, while on board, accused China of creating rising tension in the South China Sea.
According to Sean Mirski, Supreme Court Chair for the Harvard Law Review, the dispute is much more complicated than how it’s being reported.
“In the South China Sea, the six claimants have mixed and matched sovereignty law’s doctrines in order to stitch together legally convincing claims. Some claimants, like China and Vietnam, have tried to unearth a long history of effective occupation by their national predecessors. Vietnam has also tried to justify its ownership by tracing title back to its colonial occupier, France,” says Mirski.
Although China claims most of the South China Sea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all have rival claims with one another, and Taiwan shares the exact same claims as China. The US is primarily focused on China’s claims.
Patrolling of China’s man-made islands by US warships is so frequent that Francis says the Lassen had around 50 interactions with the Chinese ships and aircraft since May (making these communications routine). “Every day a US ship is down here, we interact with the Chinese,” Francis said.
The Chinese destroyer followed the Lassen for 10 days before and after its Oct. 27 guard near the artificial islands, according to Francis.
“A few weeks ago, we were talking to one of the ships that was accompanying us, a Chinese vessel … (We) picked up the phone and just talked to him like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing this Saturday? Oh, we got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating? Oh, we’re doing this. Hey, we’re planning for Halloween as well’.”
The Chinese sailors, speaking in English, replied by chatting about their hometowns, families, and places they visited, said Francis.
The Chinese destroyer that had trailed the Lassen on its operation past the artificial islands eventually stopped.
“They were very cordial the entire time … even before and after the Spratly islands transit,” Francis said.
“When they left us they said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be with you anymore. Wish you a pleasant voyage. Hope to see you again’.”
Stories about China are often one-dimensional and tend to dehumanize a country with over a billion people. But Francis and his crew of 300 sailors were unperturbed by the extreme, often propagandized, media attention of one of the most highly-awaited US naval patrols in years.
“It’s another day in the South China Sea. All of it is professional,” he said. In the end, the two governments may be at odds, but not the people.