A Chinese naval vessel tried to force a U.S. guided missile warship to stop in international waters recently, causing a tense military standoff in the latest case of Chinese maritime harassment, according to defense officials.
The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which recently took part in disaster relief operations in the Philippines, was confronted by Chinese warships in the South China Sea near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning, according to officials familiar with the incident.
"On December 5th, while lawfully operating in international waters in the South China Sea, USS Cowpens and a PLA Navy vessel had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision," a Navy official said.
"This incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap."
A State Department official said the U.S. government issued protests to China in both Washington and Beijing in both diplomatic and military channels.
The Cowpens was conducting surveillance of the Liaoning at the time. The carrier had recently sailed from the port of Qingdao on the northern Chinese coast into the South China Sea.
According to the officials, the run-in began after a Chinese navy vessel sent a hailing warning and ordered the Cowpens to stop. The cruiser continued on its course and refused the order because it was operating in international waters.
Then a Chinese tank landing ship sailed in front of the Cowpens and stopped, forcing the Cowpens to abruptly change course in what the officials said was a dangerous maneuver.
According to the officials, the Cowpens was conducting a routine operation done to exercise its freedom of navigation near the Chinese carrier when the incident occurred about a week ago.
The encounter was the type of incident that senior Pentagon officials recently warned could take place as a result of heightened tensions in the region over China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called China’s new air defense zone destabilizing and said it increased the risk of a military "miscalculation."
China’s military forces in recent days have dispatched Su-30 and J-11 fighter jets, as well as KJ-2000 airborne warning and control aircraft, to the zone to monitor the airspace that is used frequently by U.S. and Japanese military surveillance aircraft.
The United States has said it does not recognize China’s ADIZ, as has Japan’s government.
Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew through the air zone last month but were not shadowed by Chinese interceptor jets.
Chinese naval and air forces also have been pressing Japan in the East China Sea over Tokyo’s purchase a year ago of several uninhabited Senkaku Islands located north of Taiwan and south of Okinawa.
China is claiming the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. They are believed to contain large undersea reserves of natural gas and oil.
The Liaoning, China’s first carrier that was refitted from an old Soviet carrier, and four warships recently conducted their first training maneuvers in the South China Sea. The carrier recently docked at the Chinese naval port of Hainan on the South China Sea.
Defense officials have said China’s imposition of the ADIZ is aimed primarily at curbing surveillance flights in the zone, which China’s military regards as a threat to its military secrets.
The U.S. military conducts surveillance flights with EP-3 aircraft and long-range RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.
In addition to the Liaoning, Chinese warships in the flotilla include two missile destroyers, the Shenyang and the Shijiazhuang, and two missile frigates, the Yantai and the Weifang.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said it is likely that the Chinese deliberately staged the incident as part of a strategy of pressuring the United States.
"They can afford to lose an LST [landing ship] as they have about 27 of them, but they are also usually armed with one or more twin 37 millimeter cannons, which at close range could heavily damage a lightly armored U.S. Navy destroyer," said Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Most Chinese Navy large combat ships would be out-ranged by the 127-millimeter guns deployed on U.S. cruisers, except China’s Russian-made Sovremenny-class ships and Beijing’s new Type 052D destroyers that are armed with 130-millimeter guns.
The encounter appears to be part of a pattern of Chinese political signaling that it will not accept the presence of American military power in its East Asian theater of influence, Fisher said.
"China has spent the last 20 years building up its Navy and now feels that it can use it to obtain its political objectives," he said.
Fisher said that since early 2012 China has gone on the offensive in both the South China and East China Seas.
"In this early stage of using its newly acquired naval power, China is posturing and bullying, but China is also looking for a fight, a battle that will cow the Americans, the Japanese, and the Filipinos," he said.
To maintain stability in the face of Chinese military assertiveness, Fisher said the United States and Japan should seek an armed peace in the region by heavily fortifying the Senkaku Islands and the rest of the island chain they are part of.
"The U.S. and Japan should also step up their rearmament of the Philippines," Fisher said.
The Cowpens incident is the most recent example of Chinese naval aggressiveness toward U.S. ships.
The U.S. intelligence-gathering ship, USNS Impeccable, came under Chinese naval harassment from a China Maritime Surveillance ship, part of Beijing’s quasi-military maritime patrol craft, in June.
During that incident, the Chinese ship warned the Navy ship it was operating illegally despite sailing in international waters. The Chinese demanded that the ship first obtain permission before sailing in the area that was more than 100 miles from China’s coast.
The U.S. military has been stepping up surveillance of China’s naval forces, including the growing submarine fleet, as part of the U.S. policy of rebalancing forces to the Pacific.
The Impeccable was harassed in March 2009 by five Chinese ships that followed it and sprayed it with water hoses in an effort to thwart its operations.
A second spy ship, the USNS Victorious, also came under Chinese maritime harassment several years ago.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, when asked last summer about increased Chinese naval activities near Guam and Hawaii in retaliation for U.S. ship-based spying on China, said the dispute involves different interpretations of controlled waters.
Locklear said in a meeting with reporters in July, "We believe the U.S. position is that those activities are less constrained than what the Chinese believe."
China is seeking to control large areas of international waters—claiming they are part of its United Nations-defined economic exclusion zone—that Locklear said cover "most of the major sea lines of communication" near China and are needed to remain free for trade and shipping.
Locklear, who is known for his conciliatory views toward the Chinese military, sought to play down recent disputes. When asked if the Chinese activities were troubling, he said: "I would say it’s not provocative certainly. I’d say that in the Asia-Pacific, in the areas that are closer to the Chinese homeland, that we have been able to conduct operations around each other in a very professional and increasingly professional manner."
The Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command have sought to develop closer ties to the Chinese military as part of the Obama administration’s Asia pivot policies.
However, China’s military has shown limited interest in closer ties.
China’s state-controlled news media regularly report that the United States is seeking to defeat China by encircling the country with enemies while promoting dissidents within who seek the ouster of the communist regime.
The Obama administration has denied it is seeking to "contain" China and has insisted it wants continued close economic and diplomatic relations.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to seek a new type of major power relationship during a summit in California earlier this year. However, the exact nature of the new relationship remains unclear.