BEIJING -- An official Chinese newspaper on Monday accused the U.S. Navy of harassing a Chinese squadron earlier this month, shortly before a near collision that marked the two nations' most serious sea confrontation in years.
There has been no direct comment from China's Foreign Ministry or defense officials on the Dec. 5 incident in the South China Sea, where the USS Cowpens was operating in international waters. The U.S. ship, a 10,000-ton Ticonderoga-class cruiser, maneuvered to avoid the collision, the U.S. Pacific Fleet has said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying referred questions to the Defense Ministry, but insisted China "always respects and observes international laws and the freedoms of normal navigation and overflight."
The Global Times newspaper said the USS Cowpens had been getting too close to a Chinese naval drill involving the country's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and its support ships.
The paper said the Cowpens came within 45 kilometers (30 miles) of the Chinese squadron, inside what it called its "inner defense layer."
"The USS Cowpens was tailing after and harassing the Liaoning formation," the newspaper said, citing an unnamed source it described as being familiar with the confrontation. "It took offensive actions at first toward the Liaoning formation on the day of the confrontation."
China's Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed query and calls to its office rang unanswered. The U.S. State Department said it has raised the matter at a high level with the Chinese government.
The incident comes amid heightened tension over China's growing assertiveness in the region. Despite strenuous objections from Washington, Beijing recently declared a new air defense zone over parts of the East China Sea requiring foreign aircraft submit flight plans, identify themselves and accept instructions from the Chinese military. The move was widely criticized and the U.S., Japan and others have refused to comply.
The Dec. 5 confrontation was the most serious incident between the two navies since 2009, when Chinese ships and planes repeatedly harassed the U.S. ocean surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. China considers such surveillance a violation of its exclusive economic zone, a position not widely supported among experts on international law.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet says it's not uncommon for navies to operate in close proximity and that's why it is paramount they all follow international standards for maritime "rules of the road."
The Chinese navy is operating with increasing frequency in the South China Sea and around Japan. China's strategy is to boost its navy's ability to operate far from home ports while denying access to its coastal waters to ships from the U.S. and other potential rivals.
China regards the entire South China Sea and island groups within it as its own and interprets international law as giving it the right to police foreign naval activity there.
The U.S. doesn't take a position on sovereignty claims but insists on the Navy's right to transit the area and collect surveillance data.