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American and Chinese Warships Narrowly Avoid High-Seas Collision

BEIJING — The United States and China traded new accusations over naval operations in the South China Sea on Tuesday after warships from each country came perilously close to colliding in the disputed waters.

The Pentagon accused the Chinese Navy of using “an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver” when one of its destroyers challenged an American destroyer, the Decatur, as it sailed on Sunday near one of the disputed islets that China claims in the Spratly archipelago.

The Chinese ship “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers,” coming within 45 yards of the bow of the Decatur, a guided-missile cruiser on what the Pentagon described as a routine mission in international waters.

The Chinese Navy’s actions forced the Decatur to maneuver to avoid a collision, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet, Capt. Charlie Brown, said in a statement.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but faces competing claims over the Spratlys from Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan. The encounter on Sunday occurred within 12 nautical miles of Gaven Reef, a pair of outcroppings in the sea that China has expanded and fortified with weaponry since 2014.

As tensions have increased over trade and other issues, the United States and other nations have intensified naval and aerial patrols in the sea to signal that the territories there remain in international waters. Britain, France and Japan have also conducted operations there in recent months, creating what many in China view as a coordinated campaign.

China’s defense and foreign ministries each released statements on Tuesday sharply criticizing the United States, though not disputing details of the American accusations involving the Decatur.

“The United States has repeatedly sent military ships to South China Sea islands and its adjacent waters, threatened China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaged the relations between the two countries and militaries, and endangered regional peace and stability,” Senior Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said in a statement.

In 2016, an arbitration panel under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruling in an appeal brought by the Philippines, did not support China’s claims to Gaven Reef, among other shoals and maritime features in the sea. China has ignored the ruling, however, and the fortification of seven artificial islands it has built there has made Chinese control of those waters virtually a fait accompli.

China once brushed aside American accusations of “militarizing” the South China Sea — something the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, vowed publicly not to do during an appearance with President Barack Obama in 2015.

In recent months, though, officials in Beijing have shifted the focus of their arguments. They now cite patrols like the one on Sunday as justification for the installation of defensive weaponry there. In his statement, Colonel Wu called on the United States to end its “unlawful provocations” against China’s sovereignty.

The United States has for years routinely patrolled the seas as part of what it calls “freedom of navigation operations.” The patrols, officials say, are not intended to challenge any claims but rather to assert the right to “innocent passage” within the 12 nautical miles of a coastline that are considered territorial waters under international law.

With an ambitious naval modernization program well underway, China has become increasingly assertive in challenging patrols in the Spratlys and the Paracels, another disputed archipelago to the north. That has increased the risk of dangerous encounters on the high seas, adding one more irritant to relations that have deteriorated sharply because of the Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on many imports from China.

Last week, China abruptly canceled an annual security meeting planned for this month with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Beijing, not long after calling off trade talks in Washington. It also denied a request by another American warship, the Wasp, to make a port visit in Hong Kong.

In lieu of a port visit, the Wasp, an amphibious assault carrier with a contingent of Marines, also sailed through the region, though separately from the Decatur.

Luz Ding contributed research.

Follow Steven Lee Myers on Twitter: @stevenleemyers.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. and China Trade Charges After Warships Nearly Collide. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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