An official Chinese newspaper yesterday accused the US Navy of harassing a PLA squadron shortly before a near collision that was the most serious sea confrontation between the nations in years.
There has been no direct comment from the foreign ministry or defence officials on the December 5 incident in the South China Sea, where the USS Cowpens was operating in international waters. The US Pacific Fleet said the 10,000-ton cruiser had to take emergency measures to avoid a collision.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying referred questions to the defence ministry, but insisted China "always respects and observes international laws and the freedoms of normal navigation and overflight".
The Global Times newspaper said the USS Cowpens had been getting too close to a naval drill involving the country's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and its support ships. The paper said the Cowpens came within 45 kilometres of the Chinese squadron, inside what it called its "inner defence layer".
"The USS Cowpens was tailing after and harassing the Liaoning formation," the newspaper said, citing an unnamed source it described as being familiar with the confrontation. "It took offensive actions at first towards the Liaoning formation on the day of the confrontation.
"If the American navy and air force always encroach near China's doorstep, confrontation is bound to take place," it said, and cited the collision between a US spy plane and a PLA fighter in 2001 as the kind of accident that can result from confrontation.
Analysts said the stand-off underscored the increased tensions in the region between the two militaries.
"This is one more example of the growing rivalry between China, a fast-rising maritime power, and the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific region since the second world war," said Ni Lexiong , an expert in military and maritime affairs with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Jingdong Yuan, a regional security expert with the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, said: "The intention is to warn US military ships and planes against getting too close to Chinese maritime and air space and also a way to demonstrate that the parameter of Chinese aerial and maritime patrols is also expanding."
The incident came after China last month announced the establishment of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea, a move that elicited howls of objection from the US military, which immediately called China's bluff by flying B-52 bombers through the zone.
Some military analysts linked the maritime incident to the air defence zone. "The incident is a follow-up of their tit-for-tat row over the air defence identification zone," Ni said.
Yuan, who specialises in Asia-Pacific security and Chinese defence, said that while the US emphasises freedom of navigation in international waters, Beijing was obviously not pleased about US intelligence-gathering, especially that which involved getting close to new weapons systems and vessels such as the Liaoning and the new generation of nuclear submarines.