The December 5 incident in the South China Sea was the most serious of its kind in many years

China’s State media on Monday blamed the United States for a near collision between two naval vessels in the South China Sea on December 5, amid rising military tensions between the two countries as they both move to bolster their presence in the contested seas and skies of the Asia-Pacific.

The December 5 incident in the South China Sea was the most serious of its kind in many years, and came only days after China said it scrambled fighter jets to tail U.S. military aircraft in its newly established air defence zone over the East China Sea.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet on Friday said the cruiser USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid what officials described as aggressive manoeuvring by a Chinese vessel. The Cowpens was, itself, sailing near the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which has been deployed in the South China Sea, where the incident took place on December 5.

On Monday, Chinese officials responded by accusing the U.S. of provoking the Chinese navy, saying the Cowpens was “harassing” the Liaoning and had entered “within 45 km of the inner defence layer” of the Chinese fleet.

“The USS Cowpens was tailing after and harassing the Liaoning formation. It took offensive actions at first towards the Liaoning formation on the day of the confrontation,” an unnamed official told the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper.

The official said the Cowpens was carrying out “highly sensitive intelligence work” in the South China Sea.

Asked about the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Monday only said China “respects the freedom of navigation and overflight that is in accordance with international laws”, without providing further details.

The Global Times, known for its hawkish views, hit out at the U.S. in an editorial on Monday, warning that Washington “should not go too far”.

The incident took place only days after both countries had traded barbs over China’s November 23 move to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the disputed East China Sea. While not a territorial claim, an ADIZ is an area of international airspace within which countries monitor or track aircraft heading towards their airspace.

China has said it would take “defensive” emergency measures if aircraft entered the ADIZ without notifying authorities of flight plans. The U.S., however, made clear it would not do so by promptly dispatching B-52 bombers on an earlier scheduled patrol through the region without complying with China’s new demands.

The Chinese Defence Ministry said it had scrambled aircraft to tail 12 American and Japanese flights within the ADIZ, rising fears of an incident sparking tensions in a contested region where air defence zones of China, Japan and South Korea overlap.

China’s decision to set up the ADIZ has been seen as an attempt by Beijing to bolster its territorial claims, with the zone also covering the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands that are at the heart of a simmering dispute between China and Japan.

The move comes just as the U.S. is going ahead with “rebalancing” its military and strategic priorities towards the Asia-Pacific, by strengthening alliances with countries in the region, some of which, such as the Philippines, are embroiled in territorial disputes with China.

More In: International | News | World