"Crash Back"

There is a “warm war” heating up in the western Pacific Ocean where China and the U.S. are competing for maritime dominance. The chilling face-off is due to China’s claim of territorial sea rights far beyond those set by international agreements. For centuries naval powers have agreed the sovereignty of a nation extends the distance of a cannon shot off the shoreline or about three nautical miles. In 1982, the United Nations formalized “Exclusive Economic Zones.” This protocol extends coastal nations’ sovereignty to 200 nautical miles from shore. (The U.S. did not sign the treaty, but recognizes EEZs.)

China has ignored the EEZ’s and has expanded its sovereignty by constructing man-made islands, some as far as 600 miles from its shores. The Spratly Islands have been the center of their development. The Spratly’s 14 outcroppings range in area from only one acre to 100 acres and they are also claimed by six other nations, all closer to these South China Sea atolls than China.

Peking engineers have dredged up tons of sand on one islet to create 86,000 square feet of land on which they have built an airfield, rocket launchers and accommodations for armed forces. Several other islands are being raised from the sea, creating what Admiral Harry Harris, U.S. Naval Commander in the Pacific calls, The “Great Wall of Sand.”

“Crashback” recounts a December 2013 incident when China began testing its newly launched aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Concurrently, the U.S. Navy was conducting a test in the same area. When the captain of the U.S. cruiser Cowpens spotted the new ship he ordered his crew to shut down the radar in order to sneak up on the Chinese. He was hoping to reconnoiter and photograph the Chinese carrier for U.S. defense purposes.

The Cowpens, however, was being shadowed by a Chinese submarine and found itself squeezed between the two Chinese ships. The Liaoning captain demanded the Cowpens leave the area immediately. The American skipper, Greg Gombert, refused, insisting that his cruiser had the “right to free passage.”

The Chinese escalated the incident by sending smaller vessels across the bow of the Cowpens. The Cowpens was forced to make an emergency maneuver—an abrupt reversal of its engines known as a “crashback.” “For the first time the Chinese navy openly confronted a U.S Navy combatant ship on the high seas… and forced it to back down.”

This critical incident serves as the central thrust of the narrative, which traces the history of China’s swift rise as a maritime force and its ambition to replace the U.S. as the chief naval power of the Pacific. Fabey argues that the U.S. is falling behind in its hegemony of the Pacific and that public and political support is needed to modernize the U.S. fleet.

Five trillion dollars in international trade passes through the waters that touch the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea and other countries. Bringing western Pacific shipping to a standstill would cause a worldwide economic crisis. He further asserts that the ultimate danger is that such a stoppage might draw the U.S. and China into all-out war.

Michael Fabey draws on his expertise and experience as naval editor of Aviation Week. He is a veteran defense writer and has reported on military and naval affairs for most of his career, winning the most prestigious award in his field, the Timothy White Award.

Simon & Schuster is the publisher of this 305-page book, which includes a folio of colored photographs of new types of naval vessels and portraits of naval personnel mentioned in the book.