By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese operational inexperience and communications difficulties on both sides contributed to a near-collision between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea last month, the head of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific said on Wednesday.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told a Navy conference the Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, was monitoring China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it conducted operations in international waters for the first time when the incident occurred.
The Cowpens was approached on December 5 by a Chinese warship that maneuvered in front of it at a distance of about 500 yards (meters), forcing the U.S. vessel to take evasive action to avoid a collision, defense officials said.
"I believe that there was ... a lack of experience on some of their smaller ships and I think we have to understand that for now," Locklear told the Surface Navy Association during a question and answer session at its national symposium.
"Our COs (commanding officers), they operate globally. They know how to manage across numerous scenarios. ... Our PLA (People's Liberation Army) counterparts are just starting to do this," he said.
Language barriers were also a factor, Locklear said, with U.S. sailors hailing the Chinese ship in English and the Chinese having to address the Americans in sometimes limited English.
"You don't know how that translation comes across," he said.
Locklear said the Navy had taken a "hard look" at what triggered the incident and communicated frankly with the Chinese about it. Each side understands the other's viewpoint, he said.
"The bottom line ... is to make sure that all parties of the world understand ... that we operate freely in international waters and that ... we will act professionally, and that we'll act respectfully ... and not in a dangerous way unless necessary and we expect that of other navies as well," Locklear said.
The Pacific Command chief said China's recent test of a hypersonic missile was a demonstration of Beijing's ability to rapidly roll out new technologies.
"They're better at that than we are. They get to it faster. Of course they have different processes that allow them to get to it faster," he said.
Locklear said he was not particularly concerned about the Chinese test. But with many countries working on hypersonic systems, the technology would inevitably proliferate and confront the U.S. Navy at some place in the world, he said.
Although China has rattled its neighbors by making aggressive territorial claims and building up its military might, Locklear said it was important to encourage China to "come into the security environment as a productive member."
"I think we should be more optimistic about the future of China," he said. "It doesn't mean we should be Pollyannaish either."
The admiral said U.S. military planners had been thinking for a long time about how China would emerge as a world leader, a global economic power and a contributor to world security.
"China is going to rise. We've all known this for a long time," he said. "That's yet to play out. But the goal, the PaCom (Pacific Command) goal, my goal, is for China to eventually be a net provider of security and not a net user of security."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)