China is demanding the United States stop its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and has accused the U.S. of a “stupid mistake” when one of its nuclear-powered submarines collided with an unidentified object this month.
It is the latest and strongest response made by China to the Oct. 2 incident that the U.S. military publicized several days after it happened. Observers said the tough rhetoric could be a response to a recently announced defense agreement between U.S., U.K. and Australia.
It also coincided with a U.S. senate panel endorsing legislation to sanction individuals and companies involved in Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea.
In Beijing on Tuesday, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said that “China is gravely concerned” about Oct. 2 collision of the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) during a diving operation, according to a statement from the ministry.
Senior Col. Tan Kefei was quoted as saying that “being the responsible party, the U.S. has the responsibility and obligation to elaborate on the circumstances of the incident.”
He also demanded that the U.S. stop its close-in reconnaissance of the adjacent seas and airspace, as well as the so-called freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, which the U.S. Navy has been conducting.
The U.S. military uses FONOPs to challenge “excessive maritime claims” by a number of countries worldwide, including China, according to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon has also said “as long as restrictions on navigation and overflight rights and freedoms that exceed the authority provided under international law persist, the United States will continue to challenge such unlawful maritime claims.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said that “for a long time, the U.S. military has frequently dispatched aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, nuclear submarines and other advanced weapon systems to show muscles and stir up troubles in the South China Sea in the name of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’.”
He said these activities “threatened regional national security and exacerbated regional tensions” and are “exactly the root cause and harm of this incident.”
Tan repeated Chinese claims that the U.S. “deliberately delayed and concealed the details of the incident.” He said that this behavior “could easily lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
The U.S. Department of Defense has denied the accusation.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet issued a news release about the incident on Oct. 7, five days after the USS Connecticut struck an unknown object while operating in “international waters in the Indo-Pacific region.”
It said there were no life-threatening injuries to sailors and the sub’s “nuclear propulsion plant and spaces were not affected and remain fully operational.”
The Global Times newspaper, a branch of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, last week cited several Chinese experts as saying that the USS Connecticut may have made “a stupid mistake” while operating undersea.
One of the experts, Li Jie, speculated that the U.S. submarine had failed to switch to “positive sonar” needed during offensive maneuvers or when navigating in areas with a complex topography, and that the U.S. was embarrassed to talk about the error.
The USS Connecticut is currently undergoing assessment and preliminary repairs at the Naval Bay in the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam while the Navy conducts an investigation into the incident.
Details remain sketchy about what would have caused such a collision. Experts say it could be a shipwreck, or a sunken container, or even a mobile object.
In his remarks Tuesday, the Chinese Defense Ministry also mentioned last month’s announcement of AUKUS (Australia-U.K.-U.S. trilateral security pact), which is widely viewed as a pushback against growing Chinese military power in the region.
AUKUS would see Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines in the future. Spokesman Tan called it a violation of the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and said it would trigger an arms race in the region.
In Washington on Tuesday, U.S. lawmakers took their own steps to respond to what they view as the growing threat from China.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced a bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese individuals and entities involved in activities related to China’s territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas. The South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2021 will now be submitted for the full Senate’s approval.
Still a few steps from being signed into law, the bill would require that the U.S. president impose property-blocking and visa-denial sanctions on Chinese persons and entities involved in territorial disputes in the two seas.
It would also ban U.S. entities from investing in or insuring projects involving sanctioned entities in either sea.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an arch critic of China who sponsored the bill, said it would act as an additional tool “to confront Beijing as it continues its effort to unlawfully assert control over maritime territory in the South and East China Seas.