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New protocol aims to prevent at-sea miscalculation

May. 24, 2014 - 02:30PM   |  
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China, its Pacific neighbors and the U.S. reached an April agreement adopting standard communications procedures between ship crews intended to reduce the chance an at-sea encounter escalates into a crisis.

More than 20 countries voted unanimously to adopt the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an effort that has been in the works since the late 1990s and has been a priority for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.

“We’ve agreed to establish common behavior at sea,” Greenert said in an address to the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in April. “We’ve agreed to prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations.”

The need for an agreement was highlighted by the near collision between a Chinese amphib and the cruiser Cowpens last year.

The CUES document is being incorporated into pre-deployment training for ships in the Pacific, said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Sherrouse, a spokesman for Pacific Fleet.

The agreement is not binding, but “enables our commanding officers an additional tool to enhance safety measures in order to limit mutual interference, limit uncertainty, and to facilitate communication when our assets encounter each other in an unplanned manner,” Sherrouse said.

The communications code is based on Allied Tactical Publication 1 Vol. II, a bulky maritime tactical signals text that sets maneuvering and warfare practices for NATO powers. The CUES agreement is stripped to about 25 pages.

A version proposed in 2012 was much longer but was vetoed by a single anonymous vote.

'Bad behavior'

The Dec. 5, 2013, incident occurred while the Cowpens was steaming in international waters roughly 30 miles from China’s first aircraft carrier, then undergoing sea trials. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy took exception to the Cowpens’ presence. A dock landing ship drove within 100 yards of Cowpens in an aggressive shouldering move that could have caused a collision.

In the wake of the incident, top defense officials said finding ways to de-escalate encounters with China was a priority.

The CUES agreement, had it been in place, may not have prevented the incident, but it would have given the Navy at least a small way to hold China accountable for its actions, said Robert Farley, a professor with the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

“In the case of the Cowpens, those actions seemed pretty intentional,” Farley said. “But what the agreement means is that China can’t hide behind the argument that they didn’t agree to any sort of rules. It puts us in a situation where we can call out bad behavior.”

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