As Chinese and American warships ships go toe-to-toe in the seas off China, I find myself wishing Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. was still alive.

The venerable Admiral knew China. In the closing days of World War II, he helped China re-occupy the Yangtze River, and found his wife–a Harbin native–in the chaos of 1945 Shanghai.

Admiral Zumwalt also knew how to confront challenges at sea. As a young captain of the guided-missile frigate Dewey, Admiral Zumwalt kept his cool as Russian vessels charged to within 50 yards of his new command.

This sagacious officer eventually became the 19th Chief of Naval Operations, and, in his memoir, “On Watch,” Admiral Zumwalt offers some wisdom for those powers eager to engage in an at-sea shoving match. First, the primary actors–warship captains on either side–are young, brash and competitive:

“Incidents at Sea can be described with a fair amount of accuracy as an extremely dangerous, but exhilarating running game of “chicken” that American and Soviet ships had been playing with each other for many years. Official Navy statements always have blamed the Russians for starting this game, but as any teen-aged boy knows, it takes two to make a drag race…”

Second, things can get out of hand:

“…Of course, in addition to being juvenile, these incidents were terribly dangerous. Beyond the immediate damage to property and the loss of life any one of them might cause, any one could lead people to shoot at each other with results that might be by that time impossible to control…”

Finally, it is up to responsible elders to restrain their “little emperors” at sea:

“…The three year agreement on Incidents at Sea, with automatic renewals, signed in Moscow was less significant for what it said, which was little more than a reaffirmation of the Rules of the Road, than for what it represented, which was a desire on the part of the Soviet leadership to normalize maritime behavior, now that they were strong at sea. It was always my opinion that the leadership on both sides was less anxious to play the kind of game I have described than peppery young ship captains were. Thus the agreement can be taken, for one thing, as a public admonition to peppery youngsters in both camps to behave themselves.”

We may yet discover Chinese leaders, though they might be willing, are unable to quickly normalize maritime behavior. When intimidation becomes more a habit than tactic, such behavior is very, very hard to stop.


Posted by Defense Springboard in Foreign Policy, History

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  • FDNF Squid

    might be time for a INCSEA with the PLA-N

  • FDNF Squid

    *add on to my first post

    The advantages for both sides in drafting a Sino-US INCSEA far outweigh the disadvantages. We’ll be operating off their coast for years to come and as the PLA-N projects power out (and say into the IO for example) an INCSEA can provide safe interaction among US, Chinese and Allied vessels, auxilaries and aircraft. It both is a good framework for any future interaction, recognizes China’s growing sea power and also is responsible in the sense of conduct of vessels at sea. I don’t think trading paint with another navy’s ships was a good policy in the 60’s and 70’s and it’s not a good idea now.

  • Dee Illuminati

    It is interesting that the Chineese now say that they have reservations about our debt. It is as if there is a concerted effort at low-level non-declared conflict; as if some factions of the PLA (who run the majority of maunfacturing and jobs) are in a long-term strategy to undermine the US. While there are some moderates or “realists” in China there is also certainly a neo-nationalist segment as well.

    I will more fully develop my thoughts at my blog in respect to the Chineese statements on debt, impact to bond reclamation, foreign sovereign fund payments, larger balance of settlements, and the long-term impact that this will have on US and international relationships.

    My immediate thoughts are to meet the intimidation with tariffs, accelerate the global downturn, and let investors answer this question: Do you want safety in US denominated debt and the US GDP and normalized trade negotiations– or do you want to buy B-share Chineese financial instruments from a nation that increasingly states that this or that.. is a nationalized interest as they have done with disputed maritime zones? I mean make a decision, US or Chineese natio natlionalization of assets?

    The real losers here will be the EURO as this development will impinge libor and interbank harmonzation efforts, resulting in a short-term movemennt in respect to the EURO which will drive a further wedge between France, Germany, and other fully developed EURO member economies and those already under distress.

    I think that these actions will inhibit Chineese exports in the long-term and coalesce an understanding that China is not capable yet of maintaining a stabilizing presence in international relations.

    The chineese have certainly over-played a position and now prefer hubris over harmonization, and I genuinely believe that that stance is being driven by worsening economic circumstances in China that are obfusicated to a cooperative west.

    I wuldn’t buy there debt either… there is no garuntee that their boooks are any less stable than say Russia and that cronyism and coruption is not indemic to their culture.


  • P.M. Leenhouts CAPT USN (Ret)

    This post, in my opinion, is off-base.

    I spent nearly a decade at sea, cumulatively, in the FDNF, first as a division officer, followed by tours in C7F, CDS-15 and command.

    US Navy Commanding Officers cannot now be described, accurately, as “young”, “peppery”, and engaged in “juvenile” activities when responding to actions on the high seas.

    The term “little emperors” is a Chinese term used to describe the place of a single Chinese child in its family under the Chinese government’s one child policy.

    I would seriously doubt US and Chinese warships are going “toe to toe” in the South China Sea.

    In my opinion, this post is irresponsible and hardly indicative of the high level of quality we expect from the USNI, online or in print. This is not the place to, without any contemporary evidence at all, to cast aspersions on the US Navy.

    Addressing serious matters such as the prevention of incidents at sea is necessary. The suggestion of a US/PLA-N INCSEA agreement is a good one, but hardly new.

    Lets have a serious discussion of the issue.

  • sid

    Doubt the civilian master of the Impeccable is young or brash…Andits kinda hard to be peppery towing a tail and other accoutrements.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I can’t subscribe to Springboard’s words either. I do also think it is a stretch to equate the conduct of the Soviet Navy in a bi-polar world with a rising naval power (PLA-N). But this is a forum for open debate. And he is entitled to that opinion.

    For another perspective, see the blog and discussion thread from “Our Chinese ‘partners’ and more ominous mixed signals” and the answering post on the subject from CDR Salamander.

  • FDNF Squid

    I figured the ‘INCSEA with China’ idea had been kicked around for a bit but since the old one has a part on SMS vessels maybe we can get some sort of brief, similar ‘memorandum of agreement’ on comms and responsible shadowing positions for vessels. That’ll be a chore to hammer out I’m sure (assuming their even interested)!

    Any of the more seasoned folks here remember what we did to a Soviet AGI’s off our coast prior to 1972? Low altitude MPA ‘mark on tops’? Shadow ops?

  • chaps

    “Official Navy statements always have blamed the Russians for starting this game, but as any teen-aged boy knows, it takes two to make a drag race…”

    A man so open minded he won’t take his own side in an argument.

  • CAPT. L (RET):

    I find your dissent to be somewhat surprising. When Zumwalt took command of of the Dewey, he was 39. The Chung-hoon CO, Mike McCartney is around the same age. (And the Chinese Skippers? How young and peppery are they?)

    Feel free to disagree with ADM Zumwalt, but they are his words–wisdom from a guy who, I might add, enjoyed a lot more than a decade of sea service before he went and wrote his memoir. These are words of an experienced leader of the US Navy, and to reject them because “US Navy Commanding Officers cannot now be described, accurately, as “young”, “peppery”, and engaged in “juvenile” activities when responding to actions on the high seas” is to reject the wisdom from a man who had a lot of sea time, enjoyed a bout or two of shouldering, and knew the subject.

    Understanding the mindset of the opposing commanders is also important. The potential impact of demographically-induced trends like “little emperor” syndrome might have upon Chinese behavior at sea (or in other areas) is, in the future, likely to be substantive. Such things are important for both Chinese and American policymakers (and I include the Navy here) to understand.

    Fair winds and following seas-

  • Seawolf 25

    There are two ways to look at the recent incidents near Hainan Island.

    1. Don’t irritate the Red Chinese. They will strip down to their skivvies and moon you.

    2. The PLA-N has the Shkval, a very high speed rocket torpedo classified as a carrier killer.

    Both ways should be fully understood.

    The last time Admiral Zumwalt and I were in the same room was in 1970 at Nha Be beside the Rung Sat Zone in the Mekong Delta when he presented HA(L)-3 Det 2 with the PUC.