Ten sailors missing after U.S. warship, tanker collide near Singapore

Damage is seen on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters in this still frame taken from video August 21, 2017.

By Fathin Ungku and Masayuki Kitano

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Ten sailors are missing after a U.S. warship collided with an oil tanker east of Singapore before dawn on Monday, tearing a hole beneath the waterline and flooding compartments that include a crew sleeping area, the U.S. Navy said.

The collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC was the second involving a U.S. Navy destroyer and a merchant vessels in Asian waters in little more than two months.

The ships collided while the U.S. warship was heading to Singapore for a routine port call, the Navy said in a statement.

“Initial reports indicate John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side aft,” the Navy said. “There are currently 10 sailors missing and five injured.”

The destroyer had made its way to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base by Monday afternoon under its own power.

Significant damage to the hull had resulted in flooding to compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms, the Navy said, but crew members were able to stop the flooding.

A map shows the location where the Alnic MC merchant vessel came to a halt after a collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain east of Singapore August 21, 2017. REUTERS

A map shows the location where the Alnic MC merchant vessel came to a halt after a collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain east of Singapore August 21, 2017. REUTERS

Four of the injured were taken by helicopter to hospital in Singapore with non-life threatening injuries. The fifth needed no further treatment.

The USS John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after it was struck by a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven USS Fitzgerald sailors were found in a flooded berthing area.

Collisions between warships and other large vessels are extremely rare, with naval historians going back more than 50 years to find a similar incident.

A search-and-rescue mission was under way for the sailors missing from the USS John S. McCain involving Singaporean ships, helicopters and tugs, as well as U.S. Navy aircraft.

Reuters video footage from the Singapore Strait showed an area of impact about 6 meters (20 ft) wide in the John S. McCain’s port side.

The U.S. Navy later said amphibious assault ship USS America had arrived to provide messing and berthing for crew of the USS John S. McCain. It would also provide support for the search of the missing and divers to assess the damage.

 

TERRITORIAL DISPUTE

A crew member on the Alnic MC told Reuters by telephone there was no oil spill from the Liberian-flagged, 183 meter-long (600 ft) tanker, which was carrying almost 12,000 tonnes of fuel oil from Taiwan to discharge in Singapore.

“We have not discharged the tanker yet,” said the crew member, who asked not to be identified.

“We are proceeding to Raffles Reserved Anchorage, where the owners will investigate the matter. There was some damage to the valve but no oil spill.”

Stealth Maritime Corporation, the Greece-based owner of the tanker, said the vessel was moving to safe anchorage for assessment. Reuters later saw the Alnic MC anchored off Singapore.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) said no injuries were reported on the Alnic, which suffered some damage above the waterline.

“There is no report of oil pollution and traffic in the Singapore Strait is unaffected,” the MPA said, adding that the collision happened in Singaporean territorial waters.

However, the Malaysian navy said the collision happened in Malaysian waters and it had sent vessels to assist.

The Pedra Branca area near where the collision happened has long been contested by both countries, with an international court ruling in Singapore’s favor in 2008. Malaysia filed an application to review that ruling this year.

“The Malaysian agencies are not involved in the search and rescue operations that is led by Singapore,” the MPA said.

The U.S. Navy said Malaysian navy vessels and a helicopter joined the search in the afternoon. Indonesia said it had sent two aircraft and two warships to help.

The waterways around Singapore are some of the busiest and most important in the world, carrying about a third of global shipping trade.

Ben Stewart, commercial manager of Maritime Asset Security and Training in Singapore, said early indications suggested the warship may have turned across the front of the tanker.

“Instances like this should be rare and they are rare,” Stewart said.

The U.S. Navy said last week it had removed the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor on the USS Fitzgerald following an investigation into that collision.

 

SISTER SHIPS

The USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, built in the same shipyard, are both ballistic missile defense (BMD) capable ships and part of the same Japan-based destroyer squadron. The Seventh Fleet has six ships assigned to BMD patrols, with half on patrol at any time.

The accidents come at a tense time.

The USS John S. McCain carried out a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea this month, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China.

The operation was the latest to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the waters. China denounced it.

North Korea threatened last week to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea threatened the United States.

“Thoughts &; prayers are w/ our US Navy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The U.S. vessel involved in the latest collision is named for the father and grandfather of U.S. Republican Senator John McCain, who were both admirals.

Senator McCain, a Vietnam War naval pilot who was shot down and held prisoner for five-and-a-half years, is undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

“Cindy  and I are keeping America’s sailors aboard the USS John S McCain in our prayers tonight – appreciate the work of search and rescue crews,” he said on Twitter, referring to his wife.

 

 

 

(Reporting by Fathin Ungku and Masayuki Kitano; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein and Jessica Jaganathan, Aradhana Aravindan, Karishma Singh and Sam Holmes in SINGAPORE, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Joseph Sipalan and Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR, Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA, and Lesley Wroughton in WASHINGTON; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

 

Exclusive: U.S. destroyer challenges China’s claims in South China Sea

FILE PHOTO - The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain approaches the aircraft carrier USS George Washington for a fueling at sea in this December 5, 2010 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cheng S. Yang/Handout

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The operation came as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS John S. McCain traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.

It was the third “freedom of navigation operation” or “fonop” conducted during Trump’s presidency. Neither China’s defense ministry nor its foreign ministry immediately responded to a request for comment.

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea.

Tensions have risen recently after North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year and two ICBM tests last month, prompting a strong round of U.N. sanctions which angered Pyongyang who threatened to teach the United States a “severe lesson”.

Trump in turn responded by warning North Korea it would face “fire and fury” if it further threatened the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a stark warning to North Korea on Wednesday, telling Pyongyang that it should stop any actions that would lead to the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.

In July, a U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam.

Experts and officials have criticized President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Chinese jets intercept U.S. surveillance plane: U.S. officials

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries signals reconnaissance aircraft, escorted by an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, performs a flyby over aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Gulf April 24, 2016. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bobby J Siens/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the East China Sea at the weekend, with one jet coming within about 300 feet (91 meters) of the American aircraft, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial reports showed one of the Chinese J-10 aircraft came close enough to the U.S. EP-3 plane on Sunday to cause the American aircraft to change direction.

One of the officials said the Chinese jet was armed and the interception happened 80 nautical miles (148 km) from the Chinese city of Qingdao.

The Pentagon said the encounter between the aircraft was unsafe, but added that the vast majority of interactions were safe.

China’s Defence Ministry said the actions of its pilots were “legal, necessary and professional” and performed “in accordance with the law and the rules”.

“Close-in reconnaissance by U.S. aircraft threatens China’s national security, harms Sino-U.S. maritime and air military safety, endangers the personal safety of both sides’ pilots and is the root cause of unexpected incidents,” it said.

The United States should immediately stop these military activities, which are unsafe, unprofessional and unfriendly, it added.

Incidents such as Sunday’s intercept are relatively common.

In May, two Chinese SU-30 aircraft intercepted a U.S. aircraft designed to detect radiation while it was flying in international air space over the East China Sea.

China closely monitors any U.S. military activity around its coastline.

In 2001, an intercept of a U.S. spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American plane to make an emergency landing at a base on Hainan.

The 24 U.S. air crew members were held for 11 days until Washington apologized for the incident. That encounter soured U.S.-Chinese relations in the early days of President George W. Bush’s first term in office.

Separately, the Pentagon said the U.S. military would soon carry out another test of it’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

“These tests are done as a routine measure to ensure that the system is ready and… they are scheduled well in advance of any other real world geopolitical events going on,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.

The director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, said in a statement that a test would be carried out at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska.

Last month the United States shot down a simulated, incoming intermediate-range ballistic missile similar to the ones being developed by countries like North Korea, in a test of the nation’s THAAD missile defenses.

The United States deployed THAAD to South Korea this year to guard against North Korea’s shorter-range missiles. That has drawn fierce criticism from China, which says the system’s powerful radar can penetrate deep into its territory.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. Navy chief asks Chinese counterpart for help on North Korea

Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson poses after speaking to reporters on the pier of the USS Coronado, a littoral combat ship, at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore, May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Himani Sarkar

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy’s top officer asked his Chinese counterpart to exert influence on North Korea to help rein in its advancing nuclear and missile programs, a U.S. official said on Thursday.

Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson spoke with his Chinese counterpart Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong via a video teleconference.

“Richardson voiced his concern about the nuclear and missile programs and emphasized that China should use its unique influence over North Korea,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The call lasted for an hour and the two talked about the need to “work together to address the provocative and unacceptable military behavior by North Korea,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump said Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea had failed.

Trump has hoped for greater help from China to exert influence over North Korea, leaning heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders had a high-profile summit in Florida in April and Trump has frequently praised Xi while resisting criticism of Chinese trade practices.

North Korea recently said it conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and that it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile.

The United States has remained technically at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The past six decades have been punctuated by periodic rises in antagonism as well as rhetoric that has stopped short of a resumption of active hostilities.

Tensions rose sharply after North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests last year and carried out a steady stream of ballistic missile tests.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Seven sailors missing after U.S. Navy destroyer collides with container ship in Japan

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, arrives at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Toru Hanai and Megumi Lim

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) – U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald sailed back to its base in Yokosuka, with seven of its sailors still missing after it collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship more than three times its size in eastern Japan early on Saturday.

The Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with the merchant vessel at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT), some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, the Navy said.

Three aboard the destroyer had been medically evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, including the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition, the Navy said. The other two were being treated for lacerations and bruises, while other injured were being assessed aboard the ship, it said.

Search and rescue efforts by U.S. and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels were continuing for the seven missing sailors, the Navy said. Their names are being withheld until the families have been notified, it said.

Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.

UNCLEAR WHAT HAPPENED

It was unclear how the collision happened. “Once an investigation is complete then any legal issues can be addressed,” the 7th Fleet spokesman said.

The Fitzgerald suffered damage on her starboard side above and below the waterline, causing “significant damage” and flooding to two berthing spaces and other areas of the ship, the Navy said. The flooding was later stabilized, but it was uncertain how long it would take to gain access to those spaces once the ship is docked, to continue the search for the missing, it said.

Back in Yokosuka, divers will inspect the damage and develop a plan for repairs, the Navy said.

The ship was able to operate under its own power with limited propulsion, the Navy said. The Japanese Coast Guard said separately the Fitzgerald was towed back to Yokosuka by a tugboat at about 3 knots.

Part of an eight-ship squadron based in Yokosuka, the Fitzgerald had in February completed $21 million worth of upgrades and repairs.

Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ASX Crystal, said in a statement it would “cooperate fully” with the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident. At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfs the 8,315-ton U.S. warship, and was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo.

None of the 20 crew members aboard the container ship, all Filipino, were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said. The ship arrived at Tokyo Bay around 5:00 p.m. (0800 GMT), sailing under its own power, the Coast Guard said.

BUSY WATERWAYS

The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama.

International maritime rules for collision avoidance do not define right of way for any one vessel, but provide common standards for signaling between ships, as well as regulations on posting lookouts.

Japan’s public broadcaster NHK showed aerial footage of the Fitzgerald, which had a large dent on its right, or starboard, side. Images broadcast by NHK showed it had been struck next to its Aegis radar arrays behind the vertical launch tubes.

Such incidents are rare.

In May, the U.S. Navy’s USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel but both ships were able to operate under their own power.

The 7th Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, thanked the Japanese Coast guard in a post on the fleet’s Facebook page, adding: “We are committed to ensuring the safe return of the ship to port in Yokosuka.”

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart in Washington; Tim Kelly, Linda Sieg, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo, Raju Gopalakrishnan in Manila, Chizu Nomiyama in New York; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

In first under Trump, U.S. warship challenges Beijing’s claims in South China Sea

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea May 6, 2017. Picture taken May 6, 2017. Kryzentia Weiermann/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

China said its warships had warned the U.S. ship and it lodged “stern representations” with the United States. China said it remained resolutely opposed to so-called freedom of navigation operations.

The U.S. patrol, the first of its kind since October, marked the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in ally North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline.

One U.S. official said it was the first operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement.

U.S. allies and partners in the region had grown anxious as the Trump administration held off on carrying out South China Sea operations during its first few months in office.

Last month, top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Harry Harris, said the United States would likely carry out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea soon.

Still, the U.S. military has a long-standing position that the operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

“We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement.

The Pentagon gave no details of the latest mission.

‘ERRANT WAYS’

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly briefing two Chinese guided-missile warships had warned the U.S. vessel to leave the waters, and China had complained to the United States.

“The U.S. side’s errant ways have caused damage to the improving situation in the South China Sea, and are not conducive to peace and stability,” Ren said.

Ren was referring to a recent of easing of tension between China and other claimants, in particular the Philippines.

China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea, which sees about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade pass every year, are challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said such patrols were “very likely to cause unexpected sea and air accidents”.

Under the previous U.S. administration, the Navy conducted several such voyages through the South China Sea. The last operation was approved by then-President Barack Obama.

The latest U.S. patrol is likely to exacerbate U.S.-China tensions that had eased since Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit in Florida resort last month.

Trump lambasted China during the 2016 presidential campaign, accusing it of stealing U.S. jobs with unfair trade policies, manipulating its currency and militarizing parts of the South China Sea.

In December, after winning office, he upended protocol by taking a call from the president of self-ruled Taiwan, which China regards as its own sacred territory.

But since meeting Xi, Trump has praised him for efforts to restrain North Korea, though it has persisted with ballistic missile tests.

U.S.-based South China Sea expert Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the operation was the first conducted by the United States close to an artificial feature built by China not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.

Previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other features in the Spratlys built up by China, but both of those features are entitled to a territorial sea.

Mischief Reef was not entitled to a territorial sea as it was underwater at high tide before it was built up by China and was not close enough to another feature entitled to such a territorial sea, said Poling.

He said the key question was whether the U.S. warship had engaged in a real challenge to the Chinese claims by turning on radar or launching a helicopter or boat – actions not permitted in a territorial sea under international law.

Otherwise, critics say, the operation would have resembled what is known as “innocent passage” and could have reinforced rather than challenged China’s claim to a territorial limit around the reef.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Additional reporting and writing by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)

Trump-backed Navy expansion would boost costs some $400 billion over 30 years: study

FILE PHOTO - Sailors man the rails of the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as it departs its home port in San Diego, California August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Expanding the U.S. Navy to 355 ships as recommended by military leaders and backed by President Donald Trump would cost some $400 billion more over the next 30 years than the currently planned 308-ship fleet, according to a study released on Monday.

The annual cost to build, crew and operate a 355-ship fleet would be about $102 billion, or 13 percent more than the $90 billion needed for the currently planned Navy, according to the study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The $102 billion cost of the 355-ship fleet is 33 percent more than Congress appropriated in 2016 for the current 275-ship Navy, the CBO said.

To achieve the larger force, the Navy would need $26.6 billion annually for ship construction, which is 60 percent more than the average amount that Congress has appropriated for shipbuilding in the past 30 years, the CBO study said.

The Navy’s 2017 shipbuilding plan called for boosting the size of the fleet to 308 ships, which was expected to cost $21.2 billion per year to implement over 30 years.

With Trump pressing for an expansion of the fleet to 350 ships during the presidential campaign last year, the Navy released a new force structure assessment in December seeking a 355-ship Navy.

Taking into consideration older ships being retired, creating a 355-ship fleet would require the Navy to buy about 329 new ships over 30 years, compared with 254 under its previous plan for a 308-ship fleet, the CBO study found. The Navy would have to buy about 12 ships per year under the larger fleet plan, versus about eight per year under the earlier plan.

The larger fleet would require more civilian and uniformed personnel and more aircraft, pushing up overall operating costs, the CBO said.

The increase in shipbuilding would force all seven U.S. shipyards to expand their work forces and improve their infrastructure in order to meet the demand for vessels, the CBO said. The greatest challenge would be building submarines to meet the force structure requirements, the report said.

The study said the earliest the Navy could achieve a 355-ship fleet would be the year 2035, or 18 years from now.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Bill Trott)

Philippines checks report of ‘harassment’ near China-controlled reef

Filipino fishermen past a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017 REUTERS/Erik De Castro

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines has ordered an inquiry into reports that “foreign vessels” near China’s manmade islands harassed Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, the military chief said on Thursday.

In an interview with reporters, General Eduardo Ano said the armed forces had received sketchy reports of a group of Filipinos being driven away from Union Bank in the Spratlys, near Gaven Reef, on which China has built an island.

A Philippines television channel had earlier reported the fishermen had been fired upon, but the military, in a statement, described the events as “alleged harassment”.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of goods pass annually. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims, and occupy some islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago.

Philippine authorities are trying to locate the fishermen, believed to have returned to land, who have been encouraged to report to police or coastguard officials.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it was aware of the incident or if the foreign ships in question were Chinese.

Reports of altercations between the Philippines and China have been rare since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year and sought to patch up differences between the two countries and encourage business ties. He frequently heaps praise on China President Xi Jinping.

Duterte has refrained from criticizing China’s activities in the South China Sea and tends to blame the United States for letting the problem escalate, by failing to stop Beijing from building and arming its artificial islands.

In what appeared to be an olive branch to the Philippines, China’s coastguard in October started allowing Filipino fishermen to return and fish at the strategic Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized in June 2012. Chinese in the past have fired water cannon at vessels of other countries in the area.

Reuters journalists visited the coral atoll this month and saw a substantially larger Chinese coastguard and fishing presence than usual, although it was allowing Filipinos to fish inside the shoal for the first time since the blockade.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. ship changed course toward Iranians on Saturday: Iran commander

File photo: U.S. sailors in a rigid-hull inflatable boat approach the Military Sealift Command missile range instrumentation ship USNS Invincible (L) to conduct a personnel transfer in Arabian Sea on November 21, 2012. Courtesy Deven B. King/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy ship changed course toward Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, a guard commander was quoted as saying on Wednesday while issuing a warning.

A U.S. official told Reuters on Monday that multiple fast-attack vessels from the Revolutionary Guard had come within 600 yards (550 meters) of the USNS Invincible, a tracking ship, forcing it to change direction.

But guard commander Mehdi Hashemi said the incident, the first of note between the countries’ navies in those waters since January, was the fault of the U.S. ship, telling the Fars news agency: “The unprofessional actions of the Americans can have irreversible consequences,”

Years of mutual animosity eased when Washington lifted sanctions on Tehran last year after a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But major differences remain over Iran’s ballistic missile program and conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, without referring to the Hormuz incident, also gave a warning on Wednesday.

“If Iran’s ignorant enemies think about invading Iran they should know that our armed forces are much stronger than 1980 when Iraq attacked,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

While still a U.S. presidential candidate in September, Donald Trump vowed that any Iranian vessels that harassed the U.S. Navy in the Gulf would be “shot out of the water.”

Trump’s administration said on Tuesday it would show “great strictness” over restrictions on Iran’s activities under the nuclear deal with major powers, but gave little indication of what that might mean.

The last serious naval incident was in January when a U.S. destroyer fired three warning shots at four Iranian fast-attack vessels near the Strait after they closed in at high speed and disregarded repeated requests to slow down.

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in Washington on Monday that dangerous interactions were of concern because they could lead to a “miscalculation or an accidental provocation.”

“We actually had seen quite an improvement in Iran’s behavior until recently,” he said.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. carrier puts on show of ‘commitment’, not power, in South China Sea

U.S. Navy personnel prepare to launch an F18 fighter jet on the deck of USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Manuel Mogato

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON, South China Sea (Reuters) – The flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson shakes as a succession of F-18 fighter jets are catapulted into take-off, emitting a thunderous noise and leaving white mist in their wake.

Crewmen aboard the aircraft carrier scramble to prepare for the next arrival in a frenetic cycle of take-offs and landings involving dozens of aircraft, a dramatic display of American power in the hotly contested South China Sea.

The USS Carl Vinson led a carrier strike group on Friday in waters some 400 nautical miles east of China’s Hainan Island and northeast of the Paracels, the island chain occupied by Beijing since it seized control from Vietnam in the 1970s.

China claims most of the South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

China’s growing military presence in the waters has fueled concern in the West, with the United States criticizing its militarization of maritime outposts and holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

Tension between the United States and China over trade and territory under U.S. President Donald Trump has been stepped up of late, with fear in the region that the South China Sea, vital to global trade, could become a battleground between the two rival powers.

Some 30 fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft took to the sky on Friday and crew in color-coded uniform raced to service them, check their instruments and fit weapons. An overpowering smell of aircraft fuel lingered in the air.

At any given time, between eight and 25 aircraft are in the air, day and night, with 15-20 on standby.

USS Carl Vinson has been on patrol since Feb. 19 in the South China Sea, amid some confusion about U.S. staying power in the region under a Trump administration with policies skewed heavily towards a domestic agenda.

Comments so far by Washington have caused alarm, most notably those by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who suggested during his Senate hearing that China be blocked from accessing the islands it has built and fortified with surface-to-air missiles.

Rear Admiral James Kilby, the strike group commander, said the patrol was not a show of power, but a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

“We wanted to reassure our friends and allies and our belief in the freedom of navigation and security operations that we always conducted,” he reporters flown out to the carrier on Friday.

“We have operated in the past, and we will continue to operate in the future. We continued to demonstrate that the international waters are waters where everyone can sail.”

TESTING THE WATERS

Under former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, Washington sought to challenge China’s growing assertiveness through FONOPS, or Freedom of Navigation Operations, which routinely riled Beijing, particularly those close to its seven artificial islands.

Some critics say the FONOPS have been both provocative and fruitless, having failed to deter China from building up what it considers legitimate defenses.

A top Chinese official last year warned that FONOPS could “end in disaster”.

Friday’s exercise was far from the disputed areas of the waterway, rich fishing grounds which contain largely unexplored oil and gas deposits. Kilby there were “contacts” with merchant, fishing and military vessels in the past two weeks, though no “incidents”. He did not elaborate.

China has been guarded in its response to the latest U.S. mission, which started one day after Beijing finished its own aircraft carrier exercises.

It said it respected freedom of navigation and hoped the United States could “contribute positive energy towards this good situation”.

The crew aboard Carl Vinson will spend five months in Asia.

During Friday’s drills, one fighter missed its landing, or “recovery”, and was made to repeat the exercise, circling the vast ship before making a perfect landing.

Captain Douglas Verissimo, the skipper of Vinson, said the exercises included rigorous checks. Aircraft were simulating combat and bombing runs, performing over and over until flaws were ironed out.

“Every time they land, there’s someone grading them,” he said.

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)