China on Wednesday confirmed an incident between a Chinese naval vessel and a U.S. warship in the South China Sea, after Washington said a U.S. guided missile cruiser had avoided a collision with a Chinese warship manoeuvering nearby.
Experts have said the near-miss between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship operating near China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was the most significant U.S.-China maritime incident in the disputed South China Sea since 2009.
China’s Defence Ministry said the Chinese naval vessel was conducting “normal patrols” when the two vessels “met”.
“During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol,” the ministry said in a statement on its website (www.mod.gov.cn).
“The two defence departments were kept informed of the relevant situation through normal working channels and carried out effective communication.”
Washington said last week its ship was forced to take evasive action on Dec. 5 to avoid a collision.
The incident came at a time of heightened tensions in the region following Beijing’s declaration of an air defence identification zone further north in the East China Sea, which prompted protests from Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.
China’s Defence Ministry said, however, there were “good opportunities” for developing Sino-U.S. military ties.
“Both sides are willing to strengthen communication, maintain close coordination and make efforts to maintain regional peace and stability,” the ministry said.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier, which has yet to be fully armed and is being used as a training vessel, was flanked by escort ships including two destroyers and two frigates during its first deployment into the South China Sea.
Friction over the South China Sea has surged as China uses its growing naval might to assert a vast claim over the oil-and-gas rich area, raising fears of a clash between it and other countries in the area, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
The United States had raised the incident at a “high level” with China, according to a State Department official quoted by the U.S. military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Beijing routinely objects to U.S. military surveillance operations within its exclusive economic zone, while Washington insists the United States and other nations have the right to conduct routine operations in international waters.
China deployed the Liaoning to the South China Sea just days after announcing its air defence zone, which covers air space around a group of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing as well.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Hui Li; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Dean Yates)
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