China has confirmed an incident earlier this month in which a U.S. missile cruiser nearly collided with a Chinese warship in the South China Sea.
Beijing's defense ministry says the Chinese vessel was conducting normal patrols on December 5, when it met the USS Cowpens.
The statement said the encounter was handled "in accordance with strict protocol." It noted both sides have discussed the incident "through normal channels."
The United States says its ship was operating in international waters when it was forced to take evasive action to avoid hitting the Chinese vessel, which was traveling with China's new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
But Pentagon officials have downplayed reports the incident raised tensions between the two militaries, saying the situation was handled professionally.
Australia-based China observer Zhang Heci says neither country wants a major confrontation at this time.
“There is no need for the two countries to have a final face-off right now simply because they are locked in one economic system, unlike the U.S. and Russia that are operating in two relatively independent economic systems," he said. "Both suffer if confrontation breaks out. Furthermore, if China’s domestic situation changes dramatically, such as an economic breakdown or a power struggle within the party, the Chinese government may shift popular attention to international issues like a U.S.-China rift.”
An editorial in the state-run Xinhua news agency Wednesday took a more pessimistic view, saying that "fragile military links are the most vulnerable part of the two countries' overall relationship."
The United States has called for closer military cooperation to avoid mutual distrust with China, which has rapidly expanded its defense capabilities as its economy grew in recent decades.
But China is far behind the United States in military technology and Beijing's military budget remains only a fraction of Washington's.
The Liaoning is currently China's only aircraft carrier. It was on its first long-term training mission since being commissioned earlier this year, when the confrontation with the U.S. ship occurred.
The incident also occurred amid tensions over China's recently declared Air Defense Identification Zone, which overlaps with territory also claimed by U.S. ally Japan.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea all reject the zone, and have flown military planes through the area that ignored China's demand that foreign aircraft identify themselves and submit to its orders.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin Service