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Pentagon Downplays Near-Collision in South China Sea

FILE - U.S fighter jets on standby at the upper deck of a USS George Washington aircraft carrier while the USS Cowpens passes by, in the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles from Manila, September 2010.
U.S. Defense Department officials say a December 5 near-collision between U.S. and Chinese warships in the South China Sea was resolved in a routine, professional manner, and they are downplaying reports that the incident raised tensions between the two militaries.

Officials said the near-collision happened December 5, but it was not until several days later - after media had reported it - that they commented on the incident.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters the incident did not trigger a crisis.

“I don't think it was a crisis-level incident by any stretch. I think this was ships at sea operating the way ships at sea operate," he said. "I don't believe tensions have heightened. I will tell you we have not changed any procedures since the incident. I think we believe collectively this was resolved professionally."

U.S. officials say a Chinese ship cut across the path of the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, during operations in the South China Sea. The Chinese vessel was accompanying the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which reports said the U.S. ship had been observing.

U.S. officials say their cruiser was operating in international waters, and say good communication between the U.S. and Chinese ships averted an accident.

The near-collision happened as tensions remain high between the U.S. and China while Beijing asserts its naval power and territorial claims in the region.

U.S. officials are responding cautiously because the potential for miscalculation is significant, and past incidents have led to violence. Defense analyst Tim Brown at recalls the 2001 mid-air collision of a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet over Hainan island that sparked attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“This has not risen to that level, but it reflects a growing willingness by the Chinese to engage in potentially reckless behavior,” he said.

The near-miss at sea was much like ones often seen during the Cold War between U.S. and Soviet vessels. Brown says one major difference is that the U.S. and the Soviets had an understanding in which they pledged not to allow such incidents to escalate into war.

“To my knowledge, the United States and China do not have such an understanding as of yet,” he said.

Beijing recently unilaterally imposed an air defense zone above parts of the East China Sea where it disputes Japan's sovereignty over a group of islands. China said it would require all aircraft to identify themselves and file flight plans for approval by the Chinese military.

The U.S., Japan, and others announced they would not comply.