By: Hans Binnendijk

What is the kernel of the issue?

In 2001, a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft collided with a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy jet near Hainan Island in the South China Sea (SCS). The incident, which resulted in an international dispute between the United States and China, illustrated the risk of escalation in this increasingly disputed region. 

Why is the issue important?

As China continues to push its aggressive territorial claims in the SCS and elsewhere, and as the United States continues to enforce free access to disputed waters through FONOPS and other exercises, the risk of another accident between the US and Chinese military is rising. Relations between the two countries are much frostier than in 2001, meaning that a similar incident today could lead to further escalation.  

What is the recommendation?

The Biden administration should negotiate an “Incidents-At-Sea” agreement with China that lays out procedures and responses to be taken by the two countries in case of accidents in contentious areas of ocean such as the SCS. Developing such safeguards could prevent a future accident from escalating into a full-blown conflict.