China’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday made its first official comments confirming the naval confrontation between a U.S. warship and a Chinese naval vessel during a tense standoff in the South China Sea.
However, the ministry provided a different account of the incident than the Pentagon and Beijing offered conflicting assessments of the severity of the encounter.
Chinese military reports said the standoff would not alter plans for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take part next year in U.S. naval exercises in the Pacific.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the U.S. Navy’s USS Cowpens was guilty of a deliberate provocation during the Dec. 5 encounter. Xinhua said the U.S. warship ignored warnings and "broke into" naval exercises. The Cowpens "almost collided with a Chinese warship nearby" during the face off, the news agency said.
In a statement posted on the Defense Ministry website, the Chinese military said that the Chinese naval vessel was on a routine patrol when it "met" the Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, in the South China Sea.
"During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol," the ministry statement said. "The two defense departments were kept informed of the relevant situation through normal working channels and carried out effective communication."
The confrontation took place amid heightened tensions in the region over China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the nearby East China Sea that challenges Japan’s maritime claims.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported the South China Sea confrontation on Dec. 13.
Defense officials said that the Cowpens was sailing in international waters and was shadowing China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, at the time.
A Chinese warship in the region hailed the Cowpens and ordered it to stop. Instead, the ship continued sailing and a PLA Navy tank landing ship sailed in front of the Cowpens and stopped, forcing the Cowpens to abruptly change course to avoid a collision.
The Chinese ship was to blame and forced the Cowpens to begin "maneuvering to avoid a collision," a Navy official said.
Defense officials said the incident occurred near the southern tip of Hainan Island. Chinese naval forces, including the Liaoning, were conducting exercises in an area around 70 miles south of the southernmost tip of the island.
"Relations between the military forces of China and the U.S. face good opportunities for development," China’s Defense Ministry also said. "Both parties are willing to step up communication and coordination, and make efforts towards safeguarding regional peace and stability."
Observers believe Beijing’s efforts to play down the dispute are part of a Chinese government strategy to isolate Japan, a key U.S. ally.
Chinese government spokesmen have criticized Japan over its opposition to China’s air defense zone. By taking a softer line against the South China Sea naval incident, the Chinese appear to be attempting to make it seem that Japan is a bigger problem in the region than the United States.
However, a defense official said the incident shows the Chinese military is acting aggressively, not the militaries of Japan or the United States.
The imposition of the air defense zone Nov. 23 has further isolated China in the region and prompted protests from regional states concerned about growing Chinese military hegemony.
A Chinese admiral also defended the Chinese naval vessel’s attempt to stop the Cowpens.
Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo, chairman of the Chinese PLA Navy Advisory Committee for Informatization, told the official Communist Party newspaper on Monday that the Cowpens had "violated" the defense zone of the Liaoning.
Yin said reconnaissance by the U.S. ship did not violate international law. But he said China had issued an international notification of the military exercises that he said required any ship passing nearby to avoid entering "in an arbitrary manner."
The Cowpens passed inside the carrier battle group of five ships and thus "obstructed our training and navigation a number of times, which was a serious violation of the provisions," Yin told People’s Daily in response to the Free Beacon report.
The admiral rejected U.S. defense officials’ claims that the Cowpens was exercising freedom of navigation rights in international waters.
"Since you can navigate freely, we can, too, but your freedom of navigation must not affect ours," he said. "As soon as there is interference with our navigation, we apologize, but we must put a stop to that. If the U.S. side does not violate international law, then it is less likely that we will do so. The U.S. side should be well aware of this."
Yin also rejected formal U.S. protests that a State Department official said were lodged by the U.S. government in Beijing and Washington through both diplomatic and military channels.
Yin said the U.S. protests were "the pot calling the kettle black" and he asserted that China protested the Cowpens’ action through a maritime safety consultation group. "We hope that the United States will be able to understand the seriousness of the problem," he said.
The nationalistic Global Times, a Chinese party-controlled newspaper, also said that the incident was "normal" and revealed that the commander of the Liaoning radioed the Cowpens commander during the incident.
The newspaper quoted a Chinese official as saying the Liaoning battle group detected the Cowpens "trespassing" a no-sail zone near the ships.
Zhang Zheng, the Liaoning battle group commander, was contacted via radio by the Cowpens commander, Capt. Gregory W. Gombert. After a short communication, the cruiser left the area, the newspaper stated.
The Chinese military newspaper Liberation Daily reported Tuesday that the confrontation between the two navies would not prevent China from joining the 23-nation naval exercises next summer called RIMPAC, for Rim of the Pacific, the largest multinational naval exercise of its kind.
"Although the U.S. has been hyping up the recent confrontation of ‘near clash’ between the warships of China and the U.S. in the waters of the South China Sea on December 5, 2013, it doesn’t affect China’s dispatching military warships to Hawaii to participate in the Rim Pacific—2014 multi-national joint military exercise," the newspaper reported.