US, Chinese warships nearly collide in S. China Sea

This US Navy photo shows an F-18 as it launches from the flight deck of the US.Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the South China Sea on November 14, 2013

Washington (AFP) - A Chinese naval vessel came dangerously close to a US warship during a tense incident in the South China Sea last week, US military officials said Friday.

The USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, was forced to maneuver to avoid a collision with the Chinese ship that had crossed directly in front of it and halted, according to naval officers and defense officials.

China's amphibious dock ship came less than 500 yards (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.

"Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communication occurred between the US 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.

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 US 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 international waters beyond Beijing's control.

US military leaders have warned that China's air defense zone could aggravate tensions and possibly trigger a dangerous incident.

Washington has refused to recognize the air zone 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.

"US 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 US and China."

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