The Lanzhou, a missile destroyer from the People’s Liberation Army Navy, had a close encounter with Japanese helicopter carrier the Kaga in the South China Sea at the end of October, according to a report by Japanese state broadcaster NHK.

However, there were no broadsides or angry radio exchanges between the two navies – quite the opposite – when the two ships met in the vast expanse of water Beijing claims as its own.

Early on October 25, the Lanzhou‘s crew radioed their Japanese counterpart and reportedly said “good morning, glad to see you.” Before long the Japanese ship returned the greeting.

In the past, PLA vessels would warn off foreign warships in Beijing’s self-proclaimed territorial waters in the South China Sea and even deploy risky maneuvers in a bid to force ships to change course.

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The Kaga, a Japanese Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier. Photo: Hunini/WikiMedia
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The Lanzhou, a PLA missile destroyer in China’s South Sea Fleet. Photo: PLA Daily

There have been tense face-offs between the Chinese and Japanese navies throughout the years. Japan’s “meddling” in the South China Sea has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side as the country is not a claimant in the disputed waters.

This time, however, the amicable exchange of goodwill at sea occurred while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was on a high-profile, “icebreaking” visit to China during which both he and his host Xi Jinping expressed a common desire for a détente.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (Right) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Beijing on October 26. The last time a Japanese leader was on Chinese soil was in December 2011 when Yoshihiko Noda was prime minister. Photo: Xinhua

Observers said PLA troops must have been ordered to not overreact when the Japanese ship was sailing in international waters and was not being provocative. The PLA had no objections to Japan’s right to freedom of navigation.

The 27,000-ton Kaga is a helicopter carrier only commissioned in March 2017 and capable of servicing a dozen anti-submarine and search and rescue helicopters with its 400-member crew. The vessel bears a resemblance to a full-size flattop and can also carry fixed-wing aircraft like F-35Bs.

The PLA’s 7,000-ton Lanzhou is a Type 052C destroyer in the South Sea Fleet.

At the end of September, the Pentagon accused the Lanzhou of defying standard codes of encounter and bearing down on the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Decatur in an unprofessional manner that put both ships in danger. The incident took place in waters surrounding the Gaven Reef in the Spratly Islands chain.

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A photo released by the US Navy shows USS Decatur’s close encounter with the Lanzhou on September 30. Photo: Handout

US Pacific Fleet spokesman Charles Brown said in a statement that the two warships were “less than 45 yards away.”

In September, Japan’s Nippon News Network also aired a documentary, which revealed that the Hengshui, a PLA guided missile frigate, kept a close tab on the Kaga’ in the South China Sea as the Kaga started to frequent key waterways in the East and South China seas.

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