By Christopher Bodeen ,AP
QINGDAO, China — Naval officials from the U.S. and two dozen Asia-Pacific nations adopted an agreement Tuesday aimed at improving communication at sea to reduce the possibility of conflict amid rising friction between an increasingly assertive China and its neighbors.
The Code For Unplanned Encounters at Sea provides simple standardized phrases — such as “alpha” meaning divers are in surrounding waters — that navies can use when they come across ships from other countries.
It’s hoped the code will lessen the possibility of collisions or misunderstandings that could lead to conflict in the heavily trafficked sea lanes surrounding China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Tensions have risen in the region over competing territorial claims, especially over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
The agreement, approved unanimously at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao, is targeted at “establishing international standards in relation to the use of the sea,” according to a text of the agreement provided by a U.S. Navy officer.
Although not legally binding, China’s adoption of the code indicates its increased willingness to engage with its neighbors, U.S. Navy officials said. The U.S., Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru and several other nations also signed on.
In the China-Japan island dispute, the U.S. has said it takes no side on the question of sovereignty but that it recognizes Japan’s administration of the chain and has responsibilities to protect Japanese territory under a mutual defense treaty.
Chinese and Japanese ships have come into regular contact in the area since China stepped up patrols near the islands after Tokyo moved to nationalize them in 2012.
Addressing the symposium on Tuesday afternoon, China’s navy commander, Adm. Wu Shengli, welcomed the accord as a means for closer cooperation in humanitarian missions, as well as a way to avoid misunderstandings.
“For the sake of the extremely precious peace we enjoy at present, we need to … try to avoid extreme behaviors that may endanger regional security and stability,” Wu told participants, including U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert.
U.S. Navy officers said the code was based on protocols already used by the U.S. military and its allies. It had been discussed among Asia-Pacific states for more than a decade, but legal and linguistic barriers were overcome only in the past year.