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US Navy collisions a propaganda windfall for China
By Laurent THOMET
Beijing (AFP) Aug 25, 2017


'Needle in a haystack search' for missing US sailors
Aboard A Coastguard Boat Off Johor, Malaysia (AFP) Aug 24, 2017 - Off the coast of southern Malaysia, rescuers peered through binoculars at vast expanses of ocean Thursday as they zipped along in a speedboat, in a desperate search for US sailors missing after a warship accident.

The coastguard vessel Petir 12, part of a multinational search effort scouring hundreds of square miles, crashed through large waves in the South China Sea, as planes and helicopters buzzed overhead.

Four days after the USS John S. McCain collided into a tanker off Singapore -- tearing a huge hole in the destroyer's side in the latest accident involving a US warship -- hopes are fading that any of the 10 sailors who went missing will be found alive.

The US Navy has already confirmed that remains of some of the sailors have been discovered in flooded compartments on the guided-missile destroyer, but have not said how many were found or remain unaccounted for.

The Malaysian coastguard -- which along with the Malaysian navy is involved in the search -- have basic equipment, relying only on binoculars and keen eyesight.

"We don't have any special sensors to detect bodies in the sea, we have to do everything by sight," Captain Amran Daud, a Malaysian coastguard official, told AFP.

The Malaysian navy did discover a body Tuesday a considerable distance from the accident site but the US Navy has concluded that it was not one of the missing sailors.

Before setting out from a jetty in Tanjung Pengelih, Johor state, coastguard officials huddled together by a map showing the sea around the accident site, with the search area measuring some 900 square nautical miles.

As well as Malaysia, ships, aircraft and divers from the US, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia have joined the hunt.

But Amran did not sound upbeat about the prospects of finding any of the sailors: "All ships in the area have been notified (to look out for the sailors). So far, no positive sign."

Monday's collision -- which also injured five sailors -- was the second such accident in two months after an American warship collided with a cargo vessel off Japan, leaving seven sailors dead.

A spate of deadly collisions involving US Navy warships in Asian waters has provided a propaganda windfall to rivals like China and given already rattled regional allies further reason to fret, analysts say.

Four accidents this year alone, including two fatal ones in two months, resulted in the dismissal this week of the commander of the iconic US Seventh Fleet -- the centrepiece of the American military presence in Asia.

The timing could hardly be worse, with the Japan-based fleet at the heart of ongoing US efforts to project an image of military strength and effectiveness in the face of threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.

The latest incident left the guided-missile destroyer, USS John McCain limping into port in Singapore on Monday with a gaping gash in its hull following a pre-dawn collision with an oil tanker that left 10 of its crew feared dead.

Just days before, the same ship had taken part in a "freedom of navigation exercise" -- sailing close to a contested island in the South China Sea in a show of strength to challenge Beijing's territorial claims there.

The incident, and a similar collision involving another warship off Japan in June that left seven dead, has been seized on by China as an illustration of US military overreach and incompetence.

"It's a lot of good propaganda for the Chinese," James Char, a regional security specialist at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told AFP.

It comes as "China is trying to tell the region, 'you cannot count on the US for your security needs'," he said.

- 'Hazard in Asian waters' -

The Chinese foreign ministry voiced concern that US warships posed a "security threat" to civilian vessels in the South China Sea -- a criticism echoed in the state media.

Warning that the US Navy was "becoming a hazard in Asian waters", a China Daily editorial questioned why such sophisticated warships were unable to avoid other vessels.

And the nationalist Global Times said the collisions reflected how the US Navy's combat readiness and military management levels "have both declined."

The tabloid claimed there was "applause from Chinese netizens about the latest accident" on the internet, reflecting public anger over American operations in the maritime region.

Beijing claims nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Its claims are backed by a military that Chinese President Xi Jinping has modernised in line with the country's growing economic muscle.

Already boasting the world's largest army, China unveiled its second aircraft carrier this year and it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

"China is trying to increase its status in the region as a security provider" and the US accidents could help push some countries towards "China's embrace," Char said, citing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's overtures toward Beijing.

- Warning against 'foolhardy' actions -

For key US allies already worried by mixed messages from President Donald Trump's administration regarding military commitment to the region, the troubles afflicting the Seventh Fleet have simply added to their concern.

Hideshi Takesada, a regional security expert and professor at Japan's Takushoku University, said that while the accidents would not have a "critical" operational impact, they had inflicted some "psychological damage".

Daniel Pinkston, a regional security specialist at Troy University in Seoul, said allies like Japan and South Korea were already nervous about US commitments and resolve.

"The naval accidents... certainly don't help in the current political environment," he said.

A day after the USS John McCain collision, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, warned it would be "foolhardy" for any country to read it as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

"The US Navy is large, and we have a lot of capacity and we'll bring that capacity forward if we need to," Harris said at a US air base in South Korea.

burs-lth/gh/sls

SUPERPOWERS
Pentagon chief in Kiev as Ukraine seeks battlefield weapons
Kiev (AFP) Aug 23, 2017
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Ukraine Wednesday for talks on expanding US support for the country's military in its fight with Russian-backed rebels. Kiev is hoping for more lethal weaponry from the United States, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to push back the well-armed separatists who have occupied large parts of eastern Ukraine. Although the US military ha ... read more

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