'Hope to see you again': China warship to U.S. destroyer after South China Sea patrol

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'We Got Pizza and Wings': US and Chinese Warships Talk Turkey in South China Sea

As soon as the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen breached 12-nautical-mile territorial limits around one of China's man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea last week, a Chinese warship shadowing its movements began demanding answers.

"'Hey, you are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?'," it asked, as recounted to reporters on Thursday by Commander Robert Francis, commanding officer of the Lassen.

SEE ALSO: Timeline of China-Taiwan relations leading to historic meet

His crew replied that they were operating in accordance with international law, and intended to transit past the island, carrying out what U.S. officials have called a freedom-of-navigation exercise designed to challenge China's claims to the strategic waterway.

The response from the Chinese destroyer?

"The same query, over and over," said Francis, speaking onboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as it sailed 150 to 200 nautical miles from the southern tip of the Spratly archipelago, a chain of contested islands where China's seven artificial outposts have taken shape in barely two years.

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Disputes over islands in the South China Sea
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'Hope to see you again': China warship to U.S. destroyer after South China Sea patrol
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 3, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MARCH 17, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression #2 of 3. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 2 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 1 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
Philippine and US Marines aboard riverine patrol boats take position during a beach landing as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine and US Marines board riverine patrol boats during a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines maneuver during a live fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Philippine Navy's World War II-vintage warship BRP Rajah Humabon is anchored during the navy's founding anniversary celebration at a naval station in Cavite city, west of Manila on May 25, 2015 with buildings along Roxas boulevard in Manila in the background. The Philippine navy is one of the weakest in the region relying mostly on decades-old, surplus US warships, but the Philippine government has been modernising the navy and other branches of the armed forces in the face of China's increasing aggressiveness in trying to claim most of the South China sea. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines take position next to a US Marine assault amphibious vehicles (AAV) during a live-fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines simulate a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises with the US at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Filipino environmental activists display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on May 11, 2015, against China's reclamation and construction activities on islands and reefs in the Spratly Group of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The group is accusing China of destroying the fragile ecosystem and livelihood of fishermen during their reclamation project. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Lassen had joined the carrier strike group the night before, ahead of a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who while on board blamed China for rising tension in the region.

Beijing has rebuked Washington over the Lassen's patrol, the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its new islands.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

In comments that underscore the frequency with which U.S. warships now come across Chinese vessels in Asian waters, Francis said the Lassen had had about 50 "interactions" with Chinese military ships and aircraft since May while on patrol in the South and East China Seas, something he described as routine.

"Every day a U.S. ship is down here, we interact with the Chinese," Francis said.

Experts say China has dozens of naval and coastguard vessels deployed in the South China Sea at any given time, adding that encounters with U.S. warships are likely to increase after U.S. officials said the navy planned to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of China's artificial islands about twice a quarter.

"WHAT ARE YOU GUYS DOING THIS SATURDAY?"

The Chinese destroyer shadowed the Lassen for 10 days before and after its Oct. 27 patrol near the artificial islands, said Francis. The Lassen got to within six to seven nautical miles from the nearest Chinese land formation, he added.

But not all U.S.-Chinese naval interactions are tense, especially when things are slow on the high seas.

"A few weeks ago we were talking to one of the ships that was accompanying us, a Chinese vessel ... (We) picked up the phone and just talked to him like, 'Hey, what are you guys doing this Saturday? Oh, we got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating? Oh, we're doing this. Hey, we're planning for Halloween as well'." The intent, Francis said, is "to show them ... that we're normal sailors, just like them, have families, just like them."

The Chinese sailors, speaking in English, responded by talking about where they were from, their families and places they have visited, Francis said.

Eventually, the Chinese destroyer that had followed the Lassen on its mission past the artificial islands peeled away.

"They were very cordial the entire time ... even before and after the Spratly islands transit," Francis said.

"When they left us they said, 'Hey, we're not going to be with you anymore. Wish you a pleasant voyage. Hope to see you again'." As for Francis and his crew of 300 sailors, they were unfazed by the intense media coverage of one of the most highly anticipated U.S. naval patrols in years, although Francis said his mother, having seen the news, did call to ask whether he was actually in China.

"It's another day in the South China Sea. All of it is professional," he said.

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