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In what sounds like a high-stakes game of naval chicken, an American missile cruiser narrowly dodged China's first-ever aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

The incident took place Dec. 5 but only became public on Friday. The USS Cowpens was forced to take evasive maneuvers, coming as close as 200 yards from striking the Chinese ship, according to The New York Times. A ship accompanying the Liaoning, China's first air-craft carrier, cut across the bow of the American ship and forced the Cowpens to avoid a collision. The afternoon was supposed to be a quiet one: the Liaoning was on its maiden voyage into the South China Sea. 

U.S. officials who spoke to the Times were not pleased with how things turned out:

The tactic of the Chinese ship “was particularly aggressive” and “unhelpful in trying to increase cooperation between the two navies,” he said.

The U.S. has since rebuked China for failing to communicate. "Whether it is a tactical at-sea encounter, or strategic dialogue, sustained and reliable communication mitigates the risk of mishaps, which is in the interest of both the U.S. and China," an anonymous defence official told NBC News about the incident.

China has made a wide claim of the South China Sea, saying it controls 80 percent of a body of water that also includes countries like the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam. Just this week, a naval expert told the Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po that the South China Sea was an ideal place for the newly relaunched Liaoning to establish an assertive military presence for China, widely seen as a naval power in ascension.

It is no surprise that China would unilaterally test its boundaries on sovereignty claims. That's essentially been the thrust of the highly fraught tension between Japan and China over a series of islands that both claim are theirs. China announced in November that it would institute an air defence zone in the East China Sea that included those islands, against the will of the U.S. and other countries in the region.

China has also shown that it is unhappy with the perception that it is being spied upon. However, U.S. Navy officials said the Cowpens was in the area helping with disaster relief after the Philippines typhoon.

Vice President Joe Biden is currently in Beijing in an effort to defray those tensions.

The Liaoning is currently in its first long-distance test and training mission. It had previously been criticized by naval experts as being merely a boost in national patriotism rather than a meaningful threat.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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