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U.S., Chinese warships come dangerously close

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
updated 6:52 PM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens on December 6 was involved in an incident with a Chinese military vessel, U.S. military officials confirm.
The guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens on December 6 was involved in an incident with a Chinese military vessel, U.S. military officials confirm.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. Navy ship forced to come to an abrupt stop in South China Sea
  • Chinese Navy ship apparently crossed within 500 yards
  • NEW: U.S. commander of guided missile cruiser gave "all stop" order

(CNN) -- A U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser took evasive action to avoid colliding with a Chinese warship in the South China Sea in what sources called a highly unusual and deliberate act by China, CNN has learned.

The incident last Friday, which was resolved peacefully, was the latest sign of tension around recent and aggressive Chinese territorial claims in the region involving international waters and expanded airspace.

Vice President Joe Biden last week pressed Beijing over the issue, which stems from a longstanding dispute with Japan that has grown tenser.

Several U.S. military officials confirmed details of the incident on the high seas involving the USS Cowpens, which has just come to light.

The American warship -- which U.S. officials say was in international waters -- was approached by a Chinese Navy ship. The smaller vessel peeled off from a group of Chinese Navy ships that included the carrier Liaoning.

The Chinese ship failed to stop, despite radio warning from the Cowpens that it was getting too close.

The Cowpens commanding officer then issued orders for an "all stop" when the other ship was less than 500 yards off its bow, a U.S. Navy official said.

The Chinese ship proceeded past the Cowpens.

"It is unusual to have to take evasive action at sea to avoid a collision," the official added.

While naval vessels from different countries often come close as they observe each other, the United States sees this case as one that could have led to a collision because of the time and distance it takes for an American warship to stop.

"The Chinese knew what they were doing," a second U.S. military official said.

During the encounter, bridge-to-bridge radio communications were maintained between the American and Chinese commanders.

"Communications were professional," the second official said.

Though the United States will not acknowledge it openly, the Cowpens was in position to conduct surveillance on the Liaoning, which would be a sensitive matter for the Chinese.

U.S. officials insist the Cowpens remained in international waters at all times.

During a visit to Beijing last week, Biden told Chinese President Xi Jinping the United States had "deep concerns" over its newly declared East China Sea air defense zone and that Washington did not recognize it.

The Chinese action, Biden said in Japan before the Xi visit, raised the possibility of "accidents and miscalculation."

The area in question includes uninhabited islands that have been the site of tense disputes between China and Japan, both of which claim the lands.

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