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The USS Decatur passed through waters off the disputed Spratly Islands on Sunday, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs during a 10-hour patrol. Photo: AFP

America accuses Chinese warship of ‘unsafe’ manoeuvres after near collision with USS Decatur in South China Sea

China insists its actions were in accordance with law after PLA Navy warned US vessel to leave disputed waters near Spratly Islands

A Chinese destroyer nearly collided with a US warship in the disputed South China Sea after making what the Americans described as an “unsafe and unprofessional” manoeuvre in an attempt to warn it to leave the area.

In a statement late on Monday, the US described the move by the Chinese destroyer as unsafe because it moved within 41 metres (45 yards) of the US warship. The Chinese vessel then moved to prevent a collision.

US Pacific Fleet deputy spokesman Nate Christensen said the Chinese destroyer had “approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea”.

“The [Chinese] destroyer conducted a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area,” Christensen said.

The Chinese defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that the Decatur had ventured into Chinese waters on Sunday, and its navy had to send a Luyang-class destroyer to warn it off.

“The Chinese vessel took quick action and made checks against the US vessel in accordance with the law, and warned it to leave the waters,” the ministry said.

Beijing faces growing challenges to its South China Sea claims

It said the Decatur’s actions were provocative and China would resolutely protect its territorial sovereignty.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said America’s actions would undermine regional stability.

“We call on the US to rectify its wrong behaviour and stop the provocations to avoid damaging China-US relations and regional peace and stability,” Hua said in a statement.

A Luyang class destroyer of the type involved in the incident. Photo: Handout

The American guided-missile destroyer passed through waters off the disputed Spratly Islands on Sunday, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs during a 10-hour patrol. Twelve nautical miles is the commonly accepted limit for territorial waters.

Beijing claims all of the Spratly chain as its own but Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have competing claims, while the US has been conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises in the waters.

South China Sea: how well do China and the US really know each other’s intentions?

The latest manoeuvre by the two militaries came amid escalating tensions in China-US relations.

On Monday it emerged that Beijing had called off security talks planned for this month between US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

China has been stepping up its military presence and law enforcement in the South China Sea. On Thursday, state broadcaster CCTV reported that the Chinese coast guard ship the Wenchang drove an “illegal” foreign fishing boat away from the territorial waters.

“You have breached China’s maritime sovereignty. You must stop your illegal acts and leave immediately. Otherwise, we will take necessary measures,” the Wenchang’s commander, Zheng Qingfeng, said, according to the report.

Zheng gave the order while more than 10 armed coast guard officers were on deck, the report said without specifying the date of the incident or the nationality of the other vessel.

The foreign vessel later left the area.

Zhang Jie, an international relations researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said more US operations would prompt China to step up its own maritime patrols.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the maritime security programme at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said there would be more close encounters of Chinese and US military vessels.

“However, while we may see increased contacts between the forces, the risks of them escalating out of control may not be that high, as both capitals will likely still desire to maintain stability in the area,” Koh said.

“What’s more of a concern will be zealous commanders and service people on the scene taking matters into their own hands, leading to inadvertent or accidental incidents.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese and US warships in near miss