Russia continues to harass American warships and aircraft by having their own aircraft and ships maneuver dangerously close. The latest incident occurred on January 9th in the Persian Gulf when a Russian Navy ship appeared to be on a collision course with an American destroyer. The American ship used the internationally warning signal (five short horn blasts) but the Russian ship kept coming then turned away. A similar incident took place in mid-2017 in the Eastern Pacific. There have been recent incidents in the Mediterranean and Black Seas where Russian warplanes persistently flew low and close to American warships. There have been numerous incidents of Russian warplanes performing similar maneuvers against foreign military aircraft in the Baltic Sea.
The Russians always deny responsibility for these incidents but, with smartphone cameras so widely available, there is always incriminating video that contradicts the official Russian denials, or accusations that it was the fault of the Americans. These incidents were common during the Cold War but a written agreement was eventually signed in 1972 that put an end to the practice.
Then, twenty years ago the Chinese began using the same tactics. To senior naval officers who served in the 1980s what the Chinese were doing evoked memories of stories of of the Russian tactics back in the 1960s. The Cold War “Chicken (kuritsa) of the Sea” confrontations were mainly about keeping American ships from closely observing Russian warships or intelligence ships at sea. It was also about young Russian naval officers showing their bosses that they had the right stuff to deal with the Americans. But the Chinese were not just using these tactics to keep the Americans at a distance of for commanders to show off. China was mainly about asserting sovereignty and control over areas, like the South China Sea, where China, according to international law and treaties China signed, has no legitimate claim.
But the Chinese use of these tactics seems reckless compared to the Russian methods. The Russians used warships to make these threatening maneuvers while the Chinese will often use commercial vessels, especially fishing ships, to “get in the way.” The Chinese also use these tactics on the high seas (international waters) where there is no disputed territory and a high risk for deadly and expensive accidents. This has led some American naval officers and admirals to believe that some of this behavior is the result of inexperience on the part of Chinese naval officers mixed with a bit of arrogance and recklessness.
Naval historians see familiar patterns here as well. When the Chinese Empire built its first modern, Western style navy in the late 19th century, the force was crippled by corruption, arrogance and inexperience. This led to a defeat at the hands of the similarly modernized, but much more diligent and pragmatic Japanese. From there the Japanese went on to defeat Russia at sea and on land in 1904-1905. It was unprecedented, for East Asians to defeat a Western nation. The Japanese then joined the Allies in World War I and quickly conquered German colonies in the Pacific. Japan got to keep some of those conquests after World War I but felt they had received insufficient respect from their Western allies and that resentment fueled the arrogance that led to Japan attacking the United States and other World War I allies in 1941. That ended badly for the Japanese, a lesson that seems lost on the current generation of Chinese naval leaders.
It appears that China is planning to obtain some disputed territory with “grab and negotiate” tactics. The way this works the Chinese would quickly mobilize forces and seize some territory from South Korea or Japan and then offer to make peace. This can work but is highly risky if you are facing a foe, like the Japanese, who are better trained, very determined and more experienced in naval operations. Failing to achieve victory with such tactics would be disastrous for the Chinese leadership which is also disliked by its own people because of corruption and mismanagement. The “grab and make peace” tactics might work against the Philippines or Vietnam but against a more determined neighbor with more powerful air and naval forces, it could get messy and result in a very embarrassing Chinese defeat. China could threaten to use nukes, but to actually do so would be crossing a line that no one else has dared to do since 1945. China is playing a very dangerous game here and some American analysts fear too many Chinese leaders are unaware (or don’t care) how dangerous this is. An ominous aspect of this is that the Japanese, with one of the most powerful navies in East Asia, are determined not to back down if the Chinese apply pressure, and make it clear they are ready and willing to fight. This gives experienced and history-minded Chinese naval commanders pause. Chinese political leaders are another matter.
Why the Russians have revived these harassment tactics is less clear. In some respects, it may be a reaction to the greater presence of American and NATO ships and aircraft off the Russian coast than the other way around. The Cold War era Soviet Union fleet was the second largest in the world until the Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved in 1991. One reason for that collapse was the ruinous amount of money the Russians were spending on their armed forces, especially the navy. That and the massive amount of damage the communist practice of state ownership of the economy caused national bankruptcy. The mighty Soviet fleet rapidly fell apart after the collapse. Many of the ships were poorly designed and built and their conscript crews unable to properly maintain them. After 1991 the number of Russian military personnel shank to 20 percent of their Cold War strength. Since the late 1990s the Russians, now with a more efficient market economy, have been trying to rebuild their fleet but have not been very successful. It is believed the Russians see these intimidation tactics as good for morale, showing the West that the tiny Russian fleet is not to be messed with.