He said “all big wars in the past come from a minor incident” and said the United States determination to maintain its role in the region should not be underestimated.
Chinese colonel Zhou Bo said from the floor of the room: “The dilemma now is that the US comes to the South China Sea not unplanned but in a very well-planned way.”
He said a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, agreed between the two navies in 2014, only covers “unplanned encounters”.
“It is possible China will take more countermeasures,” said Bo, a senior People’s Liberation Army colonel and director of the Centre for Security Cooperation in the Chinese defence ministry.
In October photographs emerged of a near collision between a Chinese destroyer and a US naval ship during a US freedom of navigation patrol near Gaven Reef in the Spratley Islands. The destroyer came within 41 metres of the USS Decatur.
China’s director general of border and maritime affairs, Yi Xianliang, said the US and China were increasingly encountering each other at sea.
China’s former ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, criticised the US for asking countries to pick between the two big powers.
Yi, who was also speaking from the floor, complained that unlike during the Obama administration, when he could hold discussions with US counterparts on issues such as climate change, now “the US is reluctant to sit down with us and discuss issues.
“The US is more willing to use their military vessels.”
China’s former ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, criticised the US for asking countries to pick between the two big powers, and compared it to the choice US allies were being asked to make on 5G networks.
The director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, Gordon Houlden, said the increased naval activity and potential for third countries to join the US patrols “makes me nervous. The more FONOPS [freedom of navigation exercises] and counter measures, the greater the risk that things go
He said the US and Chinese views over the South China Sea were incompatible. Speaking later to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Houlden warned Australia to “think hard” before participating in any freedom of navigation patrols with the US.
The US has in the past requested Australia join the naval patrols within 12 nautical miles of the islands claimed by China.
Instead, the federal government has made public statements urging China to observe international law.
Houlden said: “My fear is we are sleepwalking towards a crisis … should there be a collision, naval or air, especially with loss of life, the fallout would be dangerous.”
He said it would be far better for the US and China to make compromises to prevent such an incident than try to deal with the fallout.
Academics from several southeast Asian countries expressed concern at the emerging rivalry between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which includes Australia. They were also concerned at potentially being forced to choose between US and China in the future.
But Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies, said although his country had security links to the US and economic links to China ultimately “the Philippines government will side with the Philippines people”.
Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.