Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday criticized the Chinese navy for the near collision between the U.S. guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens and a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea.
"That action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens was not a responsible action," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. "It was unhelpful; it was irresponsible."
The comments were the first official reaction from the Pentagon to the Dec. 5 incident in the South China Sea. The Cowpens was shadowing China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning at the time. It was hailed and ordered to stop by the Chinese navy.
The Cowpens continued on its path and a Chinese tank landing ship then sailed close to the front of the warship and stopped, forcing the Cowpens to abruptly change course.
The near collision was the most dangerous military incident between the United States and China since earlier harassment of Navy intelligence-gathering ships in the region several years ago.
Hagel said the United States and China need a mechanism to "be able to diffuse some of these issues as they occur because … what we don't want is some miscalculation here to occur."
The defense secretary said the incident involving the Cowpens could have been a "trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation."
"And so this has been a very unhelpful event. We're working on it, and we'll continue to work on it," he said.
China’s defense ministry on Wednesday put out a statement that blamed the United States for the incident and sought to play down the encounter.
The ministry statement denied the incident involved a "standoff" and instead described it as an "encounter" that was handled via normal protocols.
The MOD added that the incident was an "encounter," rather than a "standoff" as some media reports had wrongly described.
Chinese Maj. Gen. Zheng Ming, former head of the People’s Liberation Army Navy's armament technology department, said the Cowpens had intruded on the defense perimeter of the Liaoning battle group that was conducting exercises in the South China Sea.
Instead of sending a warship to block the Cowpens, China dispatched an amphibious landing ship, he said.
"In case of a real standoff, as opposed to an 'encounter,' our navy would definitely send a destroyer to intercept the intruding ship and demand that it leave immediately," Zheng said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a press conference with Hagel that during a recent visit to China in May he and Chinese military leaders agreed to "rules of behavior" for encounters at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace.
The Cowpens incident "reinforces in my mind … that we need to continue to have that work ongoing, because as the secretary said, we certainly don't want miscalculation or accident," Dempsey said.
On China’s aircraft carrier, Dempsey said the Chinese "are a long way from being a threat to us with their aircraft carrier."
China’s refurbished Soviet-era carrier was recently deployed and reports from China said it would be based in the South China Sea.
Before the comments, U.S. military, defense, and State Department officials had discussed the incident on background.
The incident comes amid heightened tensions in the region over China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the nearby East China Sea, which has brought China into a political confrontation with Japan because the zone covers Japan’s Senkaku Islands that China is claiming.
China confirmed the incident officially on Wednesday and accused the United States of a "provocation" by intruding on the aircraft carrier exercises.
"During the encounter, the Chinese naval vessel properly handled it in accordance with strict protocol," the defense 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 was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon on Dec. 13.
Defense officials have said the U.S. warship was in international waters and thus was not obligated to halt to Chinese navy demands.
The incident took place near the southern tip of the Hainan Island.
Defense officials said the Chinese naval actions were dangerous because the ships could have collided and that could have produced an escalating chain of military events.