The US navy conducted its first patrol within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands, China’s artificial archipelago, on Oct. 27. It was a provocative act, challenging Beijing’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which an estimated 30% of global trade is transported. Though the sail did not trigger an international conflict, it was watched closely by both sides, and details are still emerging about communications between the American and Chinese navies before and after.
On Nov. 5, speaking to the media for the first time since, US naval commander Robert Francis, who was in charge of the Lassen, described the back-and-forth between his officers and the Chinese that day.
For the duration of the boundary breach, the American-guided missile destroyer ship USS Lassen reportedly heard only one repeated message from the Chinese warship that followed in its wake: “Hey, you are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?” Lassen’s crew responded each time by stating that they were operating in accordance with international law, and just passing through.
The interactions were in English, said Francis, and “it was just a normal day.” However, he did imply that, under less tense circumstances, American and Chinese sailors usually have better conversations. “Every day a US ship is down here, we interact with the Chinese…It’s not uncommon for one of my officers of the decks to pick up the radio and start talking about stuff with the Chinese sailors.”
Before the Lassen crossed into the disputed zone around the Chinese-built islands, said Francis, he and his officers had spoken to the Chinese warship about dinner plans and Halloween: “We picked up the phone and just talked to him about ‘What are you guys doing this Saturday? We got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating? We’re planning for Halloween’.”
It could hardly be characterized as a tense showdown, he said, noting that when the patrol was over and the Chinese ship peeled away, the officers cordially bid farewell to each other: ”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’.”