China’s state media on Monday said the recent near-collision between a U.S. guided missile cruiser and a Chinese navy ship in the South China Sea earlier this month was the result of threatening actions by the U.S. warship.
The nationalistic Global Times newspaper, an organ of the Communist Party of China that is frequently used by China’s military to send political signals, blamed the U.S. Navy for the incident and denounced its efforts to ensure freedom of navigation in the region.
The Dec. 5 incident involved the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, and a People’s Liberation Army Navy tank landing ship in the South China Sea. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and four accompanying warships were in the area at the time of the incident.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported the incident, which U.S. officials said nearly triggered a dangerous military confrontation Friday.
A State Department official said last week that formal protests were lodged with China over the dangerous encounter through both diplomatic and military channels in Beijing and Washington.
Asked about the incident Monday, State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States regularly conducts military operations in international waters and airspace.
"In terms of this issue, the U.S. has raised it at a high level with the Chinese Government," Harf said.
Global Times said the incident "has long since ceased to be the first of Sino-U.S. warship 'confrontations' in the South China Sea, and air 'confrontations' also frequently occur."
"The U.S. clearly blocked China's doorstep, and the U.S. warship's arrival near the Liaoning for reconnaissance was no longer so-called 'innocent passage', and it constituted a threat to China's national security," the news outlet said.
"If the U.S. Navy and Air Force are always hovering around China's doorway, 'confrontation' is destined to happen."
Global Times dismissed the idea that the Cowpens was free to sail in international waters.
"For a long period of time, the term 'freedom of navigation' has become an excuse for the U.S. military to harass the legal movements of our naval vessels near the China coast," the newspaper said.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to speak directly about the incident at a press conference Monday. She referred reporters to the Defense Ministry, Agence France-Presse reported.
"I can tell you in principle that China respects the freedom of navigation and overflight that is in accordance with international laws," Hua said.
China’s Defense Ministry has issued no statements as of Monday evening.
The low-key Chinese comments are in marked contrast to recent Beijing statements criticizing Japan and its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for opposing China’s imposition of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea last month.
Analysts say Beijing’s official restraint reflects a strategy of seeking to split Japan from its key U.S. ally.
According to defense officials, the Cowpens was sailing in the South China Sea near the Liaoning when it was hailed by radio from a Chinese warship and ordered to stop.
The cruiser was operating in international waters and therefore declined to stop, at which point a Chinese tank landing ship sailed in the path of the Cowpens, forcing the cruiser to make an abrupt turn to avoid hitting the ship. The Chinese ship was within 500 yards of the cruiser.
Officials said the encounter was likely triggered by the Cowpens’ observation of the Liaoning.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration issued a notice earlier this month stating that no vessels would be allowed to enter areas of the South China Sea due to military training, presumably within the area where the Liaoning and four accompanying warships were conducting maneuvers.
Reports from China indicate that the Liaoning will be deployed permanently to the South China Sea, where tensions have been heightened by Chinese claims to maritime areas claimed by other states, including Vietnam and Philippines.
China is claiming most of the South China Sea and has designated what it calls a "nine-dash line" around the sea as its territory.
The South China Sea incident also took place amid heightened tensions in the nearby East China Sea after China on Nov. 23 unilaterally declared an air defense zone over a large area of international waters that includes islands claimed by Japan.
A defense official on Friday stated that the "encounter happened in international waters in the South China Sea on Dec. 5."
"It is not uncommon for navies to operate in close proximity, which is why it is paramount that all navies follow international standards for maritime rules of the road in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and professionalism," the statement said.
During the standoff, there was "bridge-to-bridge communication" between the U.S. and Chinese crews and later "both vessels maneuvered to ensure safe passage," the statement said.
The statement portrayed the incident as less dangerous than an earlier comment by a Navy official.
Earlier, the Navy official told the Free Beacon that the Cowpens and the PLA navy ship encounter "required maneuvering to avoid a collision" a comment that was absent from the statement released a day later.
Other Chinese media also weighed in on the South China Sea confrontation.
State-run China Daily on Monday quoted Fan Jise, a researcher at the government-run Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying "it is a relief that both sides exercised restraint this time, as there are channels for maritime consultation between the two sides."
Su Hao, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at China Foreign Affairs University was also quoted in China Daily as saying, "China has demonstrated its determination and capability to resist any unfriendly moves in the South China Sea."
"After all, the Chinese took action only after the U.S. vessels refused to comply with warnings," he said. "The U.S. has to acknowledge the fact that Chinese military forces have grown stronger, and re-evaluate its strategies given the overall Sino-U.S. relations, instead of simply imposing containment."
A Chinese military expert said to the Global Times that the Cowpens was "tailing" and "harassing" the Liaoning and had sailed within 28 miles of the carrier, an area considered part of the inner defense zone for warships.
"Bad guys always claim innocence first," the expert, speaking on background, told the newspaper. The expert also said that the Cowpens "took offensive actions at first towards the Liaoning formation on the day of the confrontation."
Another Chinese military expert, Huang Tung, head of Macau’s International Military Association, told Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper that China’s use of a less-capable tank landing ship to confront the Cowpens was very unusual and reflected Beijing’s asymmetric warfare strategy.
Huang said China may succeed in gaining publicity from the incident, but it was a risky maneuver to confront the U.S. ship as the encounter will likely intensify competition between the two militaries.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said China’s role in the confrontation is a sign it will "no longer be weak like it was in the past."
The fact that official U.S. spokesperson at the State Department and Pentagon did not publicly acknowledge the incident is a sign the United States was at fault and did not want an escalation, Ni said.
Chinese military expert Hong Yuan told the Wen Wei Po that the incident in the South China Sea was a sign that U.S.-Chinese naval rivalry "will continue in the long term."
"The U.S., conducting close-distance surveillance at a Chinese aircraft carrier was a 'shameful act,’" Hong said. "Chinese warships should have done their utmost to stop it and give no chance for the U.S. cruiser to get closer."