A US guided missile cruiser operating in international waters in the South China Sea was forced to take evasive action last week to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship, the US Pacific Fleet has revealed.
The USS Cowpens had been operating in the vicinity of China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, at a time of heightened tensions in the region following Beijing’s declaration of an air defence zone farther north in the East China Sea, a US defence official said.
Another Chinese warship came near the Cowpens in the incident on 5 December. The US ship was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision, the Pacific Fleet said in its statement.
“Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communications occurred between the US and Chinese crews, and both vessels manoeuvred to ensure safe passage,” said a defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Cowpens had been in the Philippines helping with disaster relief in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, which hit the region in November. The US navy said it was in the South China Sea conducting routine “freedom-of-navigation” operations – which are intended to assert the right of passage through a disputed area – when the incident occurred.
China sent the Liaoning to the South China Sea in the midsts of the tensions over the air zone, which covers the skies around a group of tiny islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing as well.
Beijing declared the air zone in November and demanded that aircraft flying through provide flight plans and other information. The United States and its allies rejected the Chinese demand and have continued to fly military aircraft into the zone.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea and is involved in territorial disputes with several of its neighbours in that region as well.
Asked if the Chinese vessel had been moving toward the Cowpens with aggressive intent, an official declined to speculate on the motivations of the Chinese crew. “US leaders have been clear about our commitment to develop a stable and continuous military-to-military relationship with China,” the official said.