BEIJING, China (AFP) — A spate of deadly collisions involving US Navy warships in Asian waters has provided a propaganda windfall to rivals like China and given already rattled regional allies further reason to fret, analysts say.
Four accidents this year alone, including two fatal ones in two months, resulted in the dismissal this week of the commander of the iconic US Seventh Fleet — the centerpiece of the American military presence in Asia.
The timing could hardly be worse, with the Japan-based fleet at the heart of ongoing US efforts to project an image of military strength and effectiveness in the face of threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.
The latest incident left the guided-missile destroyer USS John McCain limping into port in Singapore on Monday with a gaping gash in its hull following a pre-dawn collision with an oil tanker that left 10 of its crew feared dead.
Just days before, the same ship had taken part in a “freedom of navigation exercise” — sailing close to a contested island in the South China Sea in a show of strength to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims there.
The incident, and a similar collision involving another warship off Japan in June that left seven dead, has been seized on by China as an illustration of US military overreach and incompetence.
“It’s a lot of good propaganda for the Chinese,” James Char, a regional security specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told AFP.
It comes as “China is trying to tell the region, ‘You cannot count on the US for your security needs,'” he said.
‘Hazard in Asian waters’
The Chinese foreign ministry voiced concern that US warships posed a “security threat” to civilian vessels in the South China Sea — a criticism echoed in the state media.
Warning that the US Navy was “becoming a hazard in Asian waters,” a China Daily editorial questioned why such sophisticated warships were unable to avoid other vessels.
And the nationalist Global Times said the collisions reflected how the US Navy’s combat readiness and military management levels “have both declined.”
The tabloid claimed there was “applause from Chinese netizens about the latest accident” on the internet, reflecting public anger over American operations in the maritime region.
Beijing claims nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Its claims are backed by a military that Chinese President Xi Jinping has modernized in line with the country’s growing economic muscle.
Already boasting the world’s largest army, China unveiled its second aircraft carrier this year and it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
“China is trying to increase its status in the region as a security provider” and the US accidents could help push some countries towards “China’s embrace,” Char said, citing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures toward Beijing.
Warning against ‘foolhardy’ actions
For key US allies already worried by mixed messages from US President Donald Trump’s administration regarding military commitment to the region, the troubles afflicting the Seventh Fleet have simply added to their concern.
Hideshi Takesada, a regional security expert and professor at Japan’s Takushoku University, said that while the accidents would not have a “critical” operational impact, they had inflicted some “psychological damage.”
Daniel Pinkston, a regional security specialist at Troy University in Seoul, said allies like Japan and South Korea were already nervous about US commitments and resolve.
“The naval accidents… certainly don’t help in the current political environment,” he said.
A day after the USS John McCain collision, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, warned it would be “foolhardy” for any country to read it as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
“The US Navy is large, and we have a lot of capacity and we’ll bring that capacity forward if we need to,” Harris said at a US air base in South Korea.