New Footage From 2018 Near-Collision Between U.S., Chinese Warships Shows Sailors Preparing for Impact

Previously unreleased video footage of a near-collision between American and Chinese warships in 2018 shows that Chinese sailors were concerned enough to prepare their vessel for a potentially catastrophic accident.

The tense interception occurred in September 2018, when the guided missile destroyer USS Decatur was conducting a "freedom of navigation" operation in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

It was met by the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou, which sailed alongside the American vessel and warned its crew to leave the area. The Chinese ship warned that the Americans would "suffer consequences" if they maintained their course.

China claims the South China Sea as its own territorial waters, but the U.S. and other neighboring nations dispute the assertion. The U.S. regularly conducts naval and aerial operations in the area to assert its belief that most of the South China Sea constitutes international waters.

Initial reports of the incident included footage showing the Lanzhou within 45 yards of the Decatur as it sailed near the Spratly Islands. But new footage—acquired from the U.S. Navy by The South China Morning Post via a freedom of information request—shows Chinese sailors dropping protective buoys on the side of the vessel's hull in case of a collision.

According to Keith Patton, deputy chairman of the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, the video may show the Chinese crew using mind games.

"It could be upping the game of chicken with the [People's Liberation Army Navy] warship signalling it was serious by making those preparations," Patton told SCMP.

At the time of the encounter, American officials accused the Chinese ship of engaging in an "unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre" by sailing so close to the U.S. warship. Beijing, on the other hand, accused the U.S. of "provocative actions" and violating "basic norms governing international relations."

China has been steadily expanding its presence in the South China Sea, expanding small islands and reefs to create a network of military bases. These have allowed Beijing to effectively enforce its disputed territorial claims without a shot being fired.

Some of these bases now host electronic warfare systems, runways suitable for nuclear bombers, and hypersonic ballistic missiles designed to sink aircraft carriers.

China's claims in the South China Sea overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia—all members of ASEAN. The waters contain rich fishing grounds, vital shipping routes and potentially lucrative natural resources.

USS Decatur, China, US, South China Sea
This file photo shows the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur during a vertical replenishment via helicopter on December 19, 2012. via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images/Getty