BEIJING - The U.S.government has complained to Chinese officials that one of its guided-missile cruisers was forced to take action to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship in international waters in the South China Sea early this month.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval vessel had tried to get the USS Cowpens to stop, according to military officials quoted in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. "I don’t know the intent of the guy driving that PLA ship," one U.S. official told the paper. "I just know that he was moving to impede and harass the Cowpens."
A U.S. defense official confirmed that the incident had taken place in international waters on Dec. 5.
"It is not uncommon for navies to operate in close proximity, which is why it is paramount that all navies follow international standards for maritime rules of the road in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and professionalism," said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name. "Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communication occurred between the U.S. and Chinese crews, and both vessels maneuvered to ensure safe passage."
A State Department spokesman, who was also not authorized to speak by name, said the United States had raised the issue with China at a high level.
This is not the first time that U.S. and Chinese naval ships have come close to an accident in the area. In 2009, five Chinese military vessels surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters in the South China Sea and forced it to carry out an emergency stop, according to the Pentagon. That incident drew a protest from the White House.
The latest incident came amid growing friction between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
Last month, China unilaterally established an "air defense identification zone" in the East China Sea, encompassing a chain of small, rocky islands. China claims sovereignty over the islands, but they are administered by Japan.
China warned that noncommercial aircraft entering the zone without notice could face "defensive emergency measures," but the United States immediately called China’s bluff by flying B-52 bombers through the zone. A few days later, China scrambled fighter jets to track U.S. and Japanese military aircraft flying through the zone.
The establishment of the air defense zone was seen as part of China’s increasingly assertive and nationalistic stance over maritime territories whose sovereignty is a matter of dispute between China and some of its neighbors.
On a trip to the region last week, Vice President Joe Biden said the United States was "deeply concerned by the attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week that China’s actions on the air defense zone raised regional tensions and increased the risk of "miscalculation, confrontation and accidents."
Shortly after establishing the air defense zone, China deployed its only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea for drills. At the time, the nationalistic state-run Global Times newspaper complained that, during its voyage, "warplanes and aircraft from the US and Japan nervously followed the Chinese carrier, trying to put psychological pressure on the Chinese people."
China’s government has not made any comment about the Dec. 5 incident, but the Global Times newspaper carried a report Saturday that accused the U.S. military of "using the excuse of freedom of navigation on the high seas as a way to conduct close surveillance and monitoring of China’s normal military activities."
David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analysis said the incident did not appear to be tied to the air defense zone. "My gut would suggest to me that this dangerous and uncalled-for activity was a local initiative by the local Chinese commanders," he said. "I see this as a task force that used less than professional methods to protect their carrier, thereby engaging in potentially dangerous behavior."
But Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation said that the latest incident was part of a trend that goes back to 2011 and that there is little doubt that it was intentional, coming after the air defense zone was set up and just before the Biden visit.
"All of this is consistent," he said. "It reflects a very Chinese point of view that ‘these are our waters, under our control, and everyone else should leave.’ The Chinese are pushing their claims, willing to run risks, willing to be aggressive."