'Just a normal day’: USS Lassen CO discusses South China Sea transit
ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, South China Sea — A few days before the USS Lassen challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the bridge was chatting by radio with their shadowing Chinese destroyer, talking about pizza.
The Chinese Luyang 1-class ship, similar in size and makeup to the Lassen, had approached a few days earlier and tagged along as the Navy ship approached a string of disputed islands that China has expanded and developed with runways and other facilities.
The Lassen was on a mission to show that the 12 miles of water extending from those islands are — and will remain — international territory. As it approached and entered what China claims as its maritime exclusion zone around Subi Reef, repeated queries came from the Chinese ship about its intentions.
It was a transit that made headlines and escalated the disagreement over China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea, where an estimated 30 percent of global trade transits. Diplomacy has since failed to ease the tensions, with the U.S. vowing to continue such freedom of navigation cruises and the Chinese warning there are limits to what it will accept.
But in the days leading up to that sail and after, the two Chinese and American ships were just operating as they do every day in this vast sea — two crews maintaining cordially professional relations, which when you are this far from home, often means talking about what’s for dinner.
“Every day a U.S. ship is down here, we interact with the Chinese,” said Cmdr. Robert Christopher Francis, who took command of the Lassen in May and immediately went on patrol.
From June to August, the ship spent most of its time around the Spratly Islands but not inside the contested 12-mile radius of any of the disputed islands that China claims. They had regular interactions with Chinese military craft, fishing vessels and merchant ships.
“We are probably looking at around 50 interactions with Chinese ships or aircraft in that period,” Francis said. “And so it’s another day in the South China Sea.”
With the Chinese shadow ship, Francis said interactions, in English, were cordial before and after the approach within six to seven miles of Subi Reef.
“Lot of times as sailors when we are out there [there’s] not a lot going on,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for one of my officers of the decks to pick up the radio and start talking about stuff with the Chinese sailors.”
“We picked up the phone and just talked to him about ‘What are you guys doing this Saturday? We got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating? We’re planning for Halloween.’”
Francis said the banter is meant to show “we’re sailors just like them, we have families just like them.”
Francis said the Chinese crews would chat about their families and make other small talk.
“Obviously not operational details,” he said. “Places they’ve visited. And it’s pretty interesting.”
But Francis knew the reason for this cruise wasn’t everyday stuff, and as the ship neared Subi, the tenor from the Chinese vessel changed: “You are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?”
Francis, speaking Thursday aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it cruised through the South China Sea with Defense Secretary Ash Carter on hand, said the Lassen responded over and over that his ship was operating in accordance with international law.
The sail was not as tense as has been reported, Francis said.
“It’s not like we were going to general quarters, all battle stations manned ready to shoot missiles,” he said. “It was just a normal day.”
With he concedes that the normal day had big message.
“We are going to continue to operate [in the contested waters]” Francis said. “The Lassen and just about every other Navy ship is ready to do that.”
When the transit was reported, Francis and his crew became maritime celebrities.
“I think the crew and everyone else, including myself, we enjoyed the extra publicity,” Francis said. “Sometimes it gets out of hand because we don’t have access to the internet or television programs.”
“I got a call from my mother and she was going, ‘Hey what’s with you and China? I heard you were in China!’
“And I was like, mom, I’m not in China, I’m OK, I’m on the ship.”