China confirms near miss with US cruiser at sea
US ship had been shadowing first Chinese aircraft carrier during maiden voyage
Naval soldiers stand guard on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The warship had a near-collision with the US guided-missile cruiser, USS Cowpens, on December 5th. Photograph: Reuters
China confirmed that one of its warships had a near collision with a US guided-missile cruiser, the USS Cowpens, which had been shadowing the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during its maiden voyage in the South China Sea.
The defence ministry in Beijing said the Chinese vessel was conducting “normal patrols” when the two vessels “encountered” each other. “During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol,” the ministry said on its website.
The near miss has been described as the most significant US-China maritime incident in the South China Sea since a stand-off in 2009, the tone of the defence ministry statement was conciliatory. “The two defence departments were kept informed of the relevant situation through normal working channels and carried out effective communication,” it said.
The US said its ship was operating in international waters, but China claims large swathes of the South China Sea and is angry about US deployments near China’s coasts, saying they represent “a growing risk to China’s national security”.
Tensions in the South China Sea have been rising as China employs its expanding navy to back its territorial claims, which has raised fears of conflict with neighbours, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
To the north, China’s new air defence identification zone over the East China Sea includes the skies above an uninhabited archipelago administered by Japan that Beijing also claims. Japan has adopted new defence programme guidelines and increased its mid-term military budget for the first time in 11 years.
The US Pacific fleet said earlier this week the Cowpens was forced to take evasive action as it neared a smaller Chinese warship on December 5th.
The Liaoning was flanked by escort ships, including two destroyers and two frigates. Beijing objects to US military surveillance operations within its exclusive economic zone, but Washington insists the US and other nations have the right to conduct routine operations in international waters. “While lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA Navy vessel had an encounter that required manoeuvring to avoid a collision,” said a US Pacific fleet statement.
A report in the Global Times newspaper, part of the group that publishes the Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, said the Cowpens was “monitoring, following and harassing the drills of the Chinese fleet including aircraft carrier Liaoning”.