BEIJING — The U.S. Pacific Fleet says a Navy warship had to dodge a Chinese destroyer during a Sunday morning incident in the South China Sea.
In a written statement emailed to Navy Times, Pacific Fleet officials say that a Luyang-class destroyer closed on the Decatur around 8:30 a.m. local time Sunday in “an unsafe and unprofessional" manner near Gaven Reef, making a series of “increasingly aggressive maneuvers” that were accompanied by warnings for the Decatur to leave the area.
The Chinese vessel came within 45 yards of the Decatur’s bow before the American warship veered off to prevent a collision, officials said.
“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," added Cmdr. Nate Christensen, Deputy Spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The Decatur had been conducting a freedom of navigation operation — a “FONOP” — about 12 nautical miles away from the Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands.
“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements. However, FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims and demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” Chistensen said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday that he doesn’t see the U.S. relationship with China worsening after a series of setbacks that officials said include canceling the Pentagon chief’s planned visit to Beijing this month.
Although occupied by fortified Chinese troops, the twin reefs are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway.
The Chinese defense ministry says it opposes the U.S. warship’s entry into the waters “around China’s islands and reefs.”
It confirmed a Chinese missile destroyer was immediately deployed to identify the U.S. warship and drive it away.