“Locked and loaded” for ship collisions: is the US Navy too arrogant to give way?

Not one, but two United States Navy maritime collisions have occurred in less than two months in the “freedom of navigation” sea lanes the US government proclaims of the seas in the Far East.

On August 21 the American USS John S McCain warship collided with a Liberian-flagged commercial vessel Alnic MC which damaged the military ship off the coast of Singapore. The Navy announced that “there are currently ten sailors missing and five injured” as a result of the mishap. President Donald Trump in a Twitter statement conferred his “thoughts and prayers…with our US Navy sailors aboard.”

Some three times the Navy vessel’s size, the oil and chemical tanker Alnic MC measures in at 183 meters long and has a deadweight of 50,760 tons. The shipping lanes off Singapore’s coast are among the busiest in the world, carrying a quarter of the world’s oil and commodities. Early reports showed that the merchant vessel was not loaded with oil cargo and thus avoided a major oil and chemical spill which would have been a bigger disaster.

This accident comes as the investigation for an earlier collision involving the USS Fitzgerald, a ballistic missile (BMD) ship, has yet to be concluded. The collision which occurred in mid-June claimed the lives of seven sailors, as well as injuring three crews and Commander of the ship Bryce Benson.

In total this year, the US Navy, the largest and often considered the “most sophisticated and powerful” in the world, have been involved in four collisions and accidents. In January the USS Antietam guided missile cruiser run aground off the coast of Japan where it spilled more than a 1000 gallons of oil. In May the USS Lake Champlain guided-missile cruiser hit a South Korean fishing vessel, and in June the USS Fitzgerald guided missile destroyer collided with a Philippines-registered cargo ship off the coast of Japan.

In its reaction to the latest fatal US Navy accident, China’s state news ran a spread with the headline “the South China Sea should not be Bermuda Triangle for the United States.” In a statement, it also opined that “the US Navy has behaved arrogantly in the Asia-Pacific region. It lacks respect for huge merchant vessels and fails to take evasive action in time, thus resulting in serious accidents.”

And as always, when the competencies of American sailors should be questioned, the blame will always fall on others. For instance, American cybersecurity firm Votiro said in a statement that “I don’t believe in coincidence, both the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald were part of the 7th Fleet…there may be a connection…China has capabilities, maybe they are trying things, it is possible.”

Accidents in this part of the world should not be surprising: the US Navy’s confrontational maneuvers in Chinese waters

USS Fitzgerald after it collided with Philippine-flagged container ship in Tokyo Bay in June 2017, claiming 7 lives.

Early last year the United States conducted the so-called freedom of navigation (FON) program in the South China Sea which infuriated Beijing, interpreting it as reckless provocation of China’s claim in the highly disputed seas. The US Department of State has in its official statement that the FON operations are designed to deter “unilateral acts of other states (that) restrict the rights and freedoms of the international community in navigation and overflight…in high seas uses.” Furthermore, the FON program are conducted “on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent…with the Law of the Sea Convention.”

Reacting to the FON operations, China’s Defense Ministry continues to condemn Washington’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, warning of “an increase in the intensity of air and sea patrols…according to the extent of the threat that its national security is facing.”

It should not be sidelined that the United States is not and refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement signed by 167 states. UNCLOS is the de-facto body for setting and respecting sea borders among nations, and thus has jurisdiction over the use of international waters as well as maritime disputes. The United States, being averse to international treaties, blatantly avoids any jurisdiction over its sea vessels, and most especially on the conduct of its Navy around the world, from performing dangerous patrols to the immunity of its servicemen abroad.

Indeed, the United States continues to believe that all the world’s oceans are their backyard; that there should be priority accorded only to US warships and that all other vessels should give way to American warships wherever they are in the world. A ship the size of a typical oil tanker is impossible to miss and remain undetected aboard sophisticated US Navy vessels. That fact that these military vessels are designed to detect ballistic missiles in space and yet are unable to detect nearby and very large vessels should be a cause of concern for how Washington’s military machine operate beyond the continental United States. To be sure, the task of “policing” the world will always be America’s sole responsibility; that these military vessels in busy international shipping lanes are in a hurry to delivery democracy around the world.