The countries have agreed codes to help understand each other and talk via radio, said Commander Rich Jarrett, commanding officer of the USS Fort Worth. The language used is similar to that used 20 years ago with the Soviet Union, the U.S.’ former Cold War foe, he said.
The Fort Worth deployed the codes when it unexpectedly met a Chinese vessel near the disputed Spratly islands during a May patrol of the South China Sea. It was the first time a U.S. littoral combat ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
“I expect that we may have a similar encounter because we’re operating in this part of the world,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday on the ship moored on the Philippines’ Palawan island. “But quite honestly I’m not sure that I’m going to do anything particularly different than what I’ve done in previous deployments.”
Tensions in the South China Sea have risen with China warning planes and ships away from reefs where it is reclaiming land. A U.S. surveillance plane was repeatedly told by radio to divert from its path last month.
Protecting freedom of navigation is important in waters that host more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and are home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch.
“There is a language barrier between China and the United States,” Jarrett said. “Having a common language that we can speak is helpful,” he said, and “it does help avoid any kind of miscalculation.”
Admiral Michelle Howard, the vice chief of naval operations, declined last month to say if the Fort Worth sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys during its patrol, or give further details of the encounter. Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.
“I don’t think a day goes by anymore that our navy ships and PLAN ships aren’t communicating or seeing each other at sea,” Captain H.B. Le, deputy commander of Destroyer Squadron 7 whose unit tactically controls the Fort Worth, said in an interview Tuesday, referring to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
“It’s becoming routine,” he said on Palawan. “I think it’s important that all navies are able to operate in international waters. So we look forward to seeing the PLAN out at sea as well as other countries’ navies.”
The Fort Worth is taking part in a military exercise with the Philippines off the east coast of Palawan this week, near the South China Sea. The ship, which can operate in shallow waters near the coast, is in the midst of a 16-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region.
Separately, the Philippine and Japanese navies held an air drill west of Palawan province -- the first time they flew together over the South China Sea, Philippine Navy spokesman Lued Lincuna told reporters Tuesday on Palawan.
“The exercise was conducted outside Philippine territorial waters,” Lincuna said, without giving details on where the planes flew.
The drill was focused on search and rescue, something that’s important for Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines that are frequently hit by typhoons, Hiromi Hamano, a commander of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, said at the same briefing.
U.S. Navy Commander Rich Jarrett speaks during a media tour of the USS Fort Worth during the Cooperation Afloat Readiness And Training (CARAT) joint naval exercise.
Fire Controlmen assigned to the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), discuss operations of the Rolling Airframe Missile with members of the Philippine Navy during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Philippines 2015.