U.S. defense officials confirmed a Chinese warship performed “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuvers in the South China Sea on Sunday, coming perilously close to an American destroyer and forcing the U.S. Navy ship to change course in order to avoid a collision.
The South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday that leaked aerial photographs depict the encounter, in which a Chinese guided-missile destroyer tentatively identified as the Lanzhou came within 150 feet of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Decatur.
The Decatur was conducting a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea that brought it within 12 nautical miles of reefs in the Spratly Islands, a Vietnamese and Philippine territory claimed by China. The Chinese destroyer approached as the Decatur passed near Gaven Reef and commenced maneuvers described by a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman as “increasingly aggressive.”
According to U.S. officials, the Chinese ship originally held a position about 500 yards away from the American destroyer, but then closed to about 45 yards and cut across Decatur’s bow. It is believed to be the closest approach a Chinese warship has made to a U.S. Navy ship in the South China Sea to date.
The Chinese Defense Ministry claimed its ship merely gave the U.S. Navy vessel “a warning to leave” after it entered the area “without permission.”
The Defense Ministry insisted the America freedom of navigation patrol “gravely threatens China’s sovereignty and security, gravely damages relations between China and the US and their militaries, and gravely injures regional peace and stability.”
“U.S. Navy ships and aircraft operate throughout the Indo-Pacific routinely, including in the South China Sea. As we have for decades, our forces will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” U.S Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Charlie Brown said on Wednesday.
Australia’s Defense Minister Christopher Pyne expressed concerns about China’s “aggressive tactics” on Tuesday and said Chinese military intimidation in the South China Sea is seen as “destabilizing and potentially dangerous” by the Australian government.
“Australia has consistently expressed concern over ongoing militarization of the South China Sea and we continue to urge all claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that would increase tension in the region,” said Pyne.