Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - China says one of its warships "encountered" a US vessel, confirming US reports of a near-collision in the South China Sea earlier this month. The US said its guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action as the two ships neared each other on 5 December. It has been described as the most serious Sino-US confrontation in the South China Sea since 2009.
However, China said the incident was handled with "strict protocol". The US has said its ship was operating in international waters. But China claims parts of the South China Sea, and a state-run newspaper quoted an expert as saying that the US boat had been "harassing" China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as it carried out drills.
The incident came to light last week after US officials spoke about it. "While lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA [People's Liberation Army] Navy vessel had an encounter that required manoeuvring to avoid a collision," a US Pacific fleet statement said.
Eventually, the two crews were able to communicate and "both vessels manoeuvred to ensure safe passage", an unnamed defence official was quoted by Reuters as saying. The US had raised the incident at a "high level" with China, an unnamed State Department official quoted by US military newspaper Stars and Stripes said. In a statement on Wednesday, China's defence ministry said the two ships met during a "routine patrol" by one of China's naval vessels. "The Chinese naval vessel strictly followed protocol and handled the incident," it said.
The incident came amid tensions after China established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over a swathe of the East China Sea, including disputed islands controlled by Japan. Japan, the US and South Korea - which claims a rock that lies within China's declared zone - have strongly criticised the move, with the US calling it "an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo" in the region.