Close encounters

U.S. and Russian warships record a near-collision in the North Pacific region near China’s coast at a time when Russia-China relations reach an “unprecedented level” in terms of their economic ties, including arms deals, and joint military exercises.

Published : Jun 19, 2019 12:30 IST

Admiral Vinogradov  of the Russian Pacific Fleet (left) sails close to the USS Chancellorsville in the Pacific Ocean on June 7 in this image provided by the U.S. Navy. The  U.S. and Russian militaries blamed each other for the  near collision.

Admiral Vinogradov of the Russian Pacific Fleet (left) sails close to the USS Chancellorsville in the Pacific Ocean on June 7 in this image provided by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. and Russian militaries blamed each other for the near collision.

ON June 7, two powerful warships almost collided in the Pacific Ocean near the Chinese maritime border. Each blamed the other for the near collision. The two ships—the USS Chancellorsville of the Carrier Strike Group Five and Admiral Vinogradov of the Russian Pacific Fleet—came within 50 metres of each other. It was a very tense moment. Fortunately, there was no damage to either ship. 

The only outcome was a war of words over the interpretation of the event. The United States Navy said the Russian warship had deliberately steered into its path, while the Russian Navy said the U.S. warship was the one that changed course suddenly towards Admiral Vinogradov. The tension escalated and then fizzled out. 

Such naval harassment is not uncommon. U.S. warships are frequently nudged out of the periphery of the national waters of countries around Eurasia either by Russian warships or Iranian patrol boats. Habits of an imperial navy remain deeply embedded in the U.S.’ understanding of international waters and sovereignty. U.S. warships routinely sail as close as possible to the sea boundaries of states it wants to test and provoke. Incidents such as this take place on a regular basis between U.S. and Russian ships from the Barents Sea to the Sea of Okhotsk, when U.S. warships move close to Russian waters. There have recently been a number of dangerous incidents as U.S. warships edged closer to Iran in the Gulf of Oman. It is important to note that no Russian or Iranian warships threaten the territorial waters of the U.S. Each of these incidents takes place far from the U.S.’ borders.

What is unusual about this particular incident is that it took place not near a Russian border but near the Chinese maritime border. The U.S. and Russia disagreed about where the incident took place. The U.S. said it took place in the Philippine Sea, while Russia said it took place in the East China Sea. These two waters of the Pacific Ocean are divided by the contentious Diaoyutai (China) or Senkaku (Japan) islands, under which lie substantial oil reserves. The dispute over these islands and the oil reserves began in 1969, after the United Nations released a report of substantial oil and gas holdings in the area. Japan’s government has said that Chinese ships have been entering the region for the past two months. This is a region of great sensitivity, with these sovereignty claims remaining unresolved and with U.S. warships that are based in Japan sailing into them almost to provoke a Chinese response.

But it was not a Chinese ship that was involved in this incident. The ship is Russian.

Sanctions and markets

A few days before the near collision, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Kremlin. Putin said of the meeting that China-Russian relations had reached an “unprecedented level”. The two world leaders spent a few days negotiating a series of trade and energy deals as well as ensuring harmony on their political outlook and on their military relationship. The deals amounted to more than $20 billion.

Xi and Putin went from the Kremlin to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual business meeting that has been ongoing since 1997. Initially, the St. Petersburg Forum had a convivial relationship with the World Economic Forum, even holding a joint meeting in 2007. But now the general flavour of the St. Petersburg Forum is that it is a Russian (and increasingly Chinese) alternative to the West-dominated World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. The plenary speakers for this year’s St. Petersburg Forum—Putin, Xi and the heads of government of Armenia, Bulgaria and Slovakia—indicate a sharp difference from Davos.

The links between China and Russia have undoubtedly deepened. There are many reasons for this. First, there has been a long-term push by the U.S. and its allies to prod at the sovereignty of both China and Russia—whether through the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) towards Russia’s borders or by the U.S.’ aggressive naval strategy from Japan to Taiwan. This prodding has led to a harsh sanctions regime against Russia, which has found itself isolated from European markets. This has led to Russia seeking closer economic ties with China. 

Second, the U.S. has attempted to get China to surrender its economic advantages to U.S. firms, which has led to this trade war. China has long sought an escape from the close links to the U.S. market. One of these passages out of the U.S. market has been the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the String of Pearls initiative that runs across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. The BRI has relied upon the Central Asian states, where Russia continues to have a strong influence, and on West Asia, where Russian intervention in Syria showed Russia’s willingness to act—serendipitously—on behalf of Chinese interests. Fear of U.S. action and the need for a Eurasian regional economic strategy is what brings these two major states together.

Bipolar world order

Professor Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute for International Relations at Tsinghua University, Beijing, says that the world order has shifted from a unipolar world, with the U.S. at its centre, to a bipolar world, with China joining the U.S. as the two supreme powers in the world. The process of movement from a unipolar to a bipolar system will not be smooth, and the contests will be fierce. The nuclear deterrent will prevent the contest from deteriorating in a military direction, Professor Yan argues. Trade wars and sanctions and contests over markets will define the tension. In the interim, “chaos and disorder” will define the world. But by 2023, Professor Yan notes, the bipolar system will be established.

At the St. Petersburg summit, President Xi spoke cautiously about the U.S. trade war with China. “It’s hard to imagine a complete break of the United States from China or of China from the United States,” he said. “We are not interested in this, and our American partners are not interested in this.” 

“Global integration,” Xi said, is an unstoppable trend. But beneath these careful words were a much more heightened reality. In late May, China accused the U.S. of “economic terrorism”, suggesting that the ratcheted-up trade war went beyond the boundaries of “global integration”. This is strong language, with China putting tariffs on $60 billion worth of imports from the U.S. in retaliation for the U.S. placing $200 billion on Chinese goods. An easy exit from this trade war does not seem likely.

Putin’s speech at the St. Petersburg Forum was much stronger than Xi’s speech. While Xi defended globalisation, Putin attacked it directly: “I believe the main reason [for global problems] is that the globalisation model which was put forth at the end of the 20th century is less and less relevant to the emerging new economic reality.” 

Neither Putin nor Xi offered too many details. When Xi spoke positively of globalisation, Putin applauded heartily. It is likely that they referred to different things. Putin directly spoke of the type of West-driven globalisation that has resulted in high rates of economic and social inequality. Xi, on the other hand, could be thinking less in terms of the West-driven globalisation than of “global integration” along the lines of its own economic interventions around the world. In other words, Putin attacked the receding power of unipolarity, while Xi championed the emergence of the bipolar world order.

Military ties

In 2008, China and Russia finally solved their decades-long border dispute. The 4,200-kilometre border is now completely delimited. The end of this long problem came at the same time as China and Russia began to increase economic ties in the shadows of the general financial crisis that had hit the world. These economic ties included arms deals from Russia that helped upgrade China’s People’s Liberation Army forces, although now it is Chinese shipbuilding and the use of artificial intelligence in weaponry that is of interest to Russia. The new ties include regular joint military exercises in both countries. In September 2018, the Chinese and Russians conducted Vostok 2018, one of the largest military exercises in their history, which included a third of Russia’s soldiers. These close ties have disturbed the confidence of the U.S. government.

Little surprise, then, that the U.S. warship that left its base in Yokosuka, Japan, ran into a Russian warship near the edge of Chinese territorial waters. Fortunately, there was no escalation from this incident.

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