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Originally published Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 4:23 PM

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U.S. says Chinese warship nearly struck Navy cruiser

An accident was averted when the U.S. missile-carrying cruiser Cowpens, traveling in international waters, maneuvered to avoid the Chinese vessel.

The New York Times

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BEIJING — In a sign of the increased tensions between the United States and China on the open seas, navy vessels from the two countries almost collided in the South China Sea when a Chinese ship cut across the bow of an U.S. cruiser, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday.

An accident was averted when the missile-carrying cruiser Cowpens, traveling in international waters, maneuvered to avoid the Chinese vessel, the official said. At the time, the U.S. ship was observing China’s new aircraft carrier, which was also in the vicinity.

The near collision, which occurred Dec. 5 but did not become public until Friday, was one more example of the growing rivalry between China, a rising maritime power, and the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific region since World War II.

The episode came as the Obama administration has chastised China for imposing an air-defense-identification zone in the East China Sea over islands and airspace that are also claimed by Japan.

In announcing the zone, the Chinese said they would require planes entering the area to file advance flight plans, a demand that the United States and Japan have defied.

The information office at the Chinese Ministry of National Defense did not respond to a request for comment on the maritime encounter.

The Cowpens was observing the Chinese carrier, the Liaoning, as it made its first voyage in the South China Sea from its home base in Qingdao, the headquarters of China’s North Sea Fleet, the defense official and Navy experts said. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Chinese vessel cut across the bow of the U.S. ship at a distance of less than 200 yards, the defense official said. The vessel was similar to a U.S. tank-landing ship and was accompanying the aircraft carrier.

The tactic of the Chinese ship “was particularly aggressive,” he said.

Analysts said the tense encounter underscored the dangers of the current situation in the area. “This illustrates the anxieties between the United States and China, and it is very troubling,” said Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“International politics on both sides call for ratcheting up of tensions, and I don’t see either side finding compromises. Neither side knows the other’s red lines.”

U.S. officials said the Cowpens had been adhering to international guidelines.

“Our cruiser was operating in international waters of the South China Sea, not close into the coast and in the general vicinity of the aircraft carrier,” the defense official said.

The Chinese ship accompanying the aircraft carrier began shouldering the U.S. cruiser and then crossed its bow, he said. After the U.S. ship took the evasive maneuver, there was “bridge-to-bridge” contact, in English, between the two ships, the official said. “It was tense but professional,” he said.

It was not clear how far the Cowpens had been sailing from the Chinese aircraft carrier. But because of sophisticated U.S. radar, it did not have to be particularly close to observe it, naval experts said.

The Chinese aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian vessel, was launched last year. It is not fully operational and does not carry a full complement of aircraft.

Still, the Navy wants to understand how the Chinese are planning to use the carrier as China asserts territorial claims in the region.

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