WASHINGTON – A Chinese naval vessel came dangerously close to a U.S. warship during a tense incident in the South China Sea last week, U.S. military officials said Friday.
The USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, was forced to maneuver to avoid a collision with the Chinese ship, which had crossed directly in front of it and halted, according to naval officers and defense officials.
The amphibious dock ship came less than 500 meters from the American warship, a defense official said.
“This encounter happened in international waters in the South China Sea on Dec. 5,” the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in an email message.
“Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communication occurred between the U.S. and Chinese crews, and both vessels maneuvered to ensure safe passage,” the official said.
The official said the Cowpens had been “in the vicinity” of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, when the incident occurred.
China was probably angry the Cowpens may have been trying to spy on its only aircraft carrier, said Dean Cheng, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington.
“This was not an accident,” Cheng said in an interview. “It was deliberate. The Chinese are raising the ante.”
The stand-off ended peacefully but underscored tensions between the United States and China, which escalated after Beijing last month declared an expanded air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
Last week’s confrontation occurred in the strategic South China Sea, where Beijing has aggressively moved to push for control over territory claimed by other countries in the region.
The U.S. military has repeatedly vowed to keep operating in international waters and airspace, and has increased its presence in Southeast Asia over the past year as a counter-balance to Beijing’s more assertive regional stance.
China has declared an economic exclusion zone in part of the western Pacific, but the United States considers the area to be international waters beyond Beijing’s control.
U.S. military leaders have warned that China’s new air defense zone could aggravate tensions and trigger a dangerous incident.
Washington has refused to recognize the ADIZ and flew a pair of B-52 bombers through the area without notifying Beijing in advance.
The defense official renewed calls for bolstering military relations between the two countries to prevent misunderstandings.
“U.S. leaders have been clear about our commitment to develop a stable and continuous military-to-military relationship with China,” the defense official said.
“Whether it is a tactical at-sea encounter or strategic dialogue, sustained and reliable communication mitigates risk of mishaps, which is in the interest of both the U.S. and China.”