SHANGHAI — China blamed the United States on Tuesday for a naval confrontation in the South China Sea over the weekend, contending that an American surveillance vessel was illegally conducting activities in China's special economic zone.
The U.S. Defense Department had complained that five Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the Impeccable, a submarine-surveillance ship, in international waters on Sunday. The Chinese boats dropped wood debris in the Impeccable's path, and one of the ships came within 25 feet of the unarmed U.S. vessel, the Pentagon said, calling the actions dangerous, unprofessional and in violation of international law.
The incident, the latest of several recent confrontations between Chinese boats and aircraft and American surveillance vessels, heightened geopolitical tensions and triggered a jump in oil prices Monday.
U.S. officials said a formal protest had been lodged with the Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as the Chinese Embassy in Washington. It was unclear whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would bring up the matter with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during a meeting today in Washington.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu on Tuesday said, "The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China."
"We demand that the United States put an immediate stop to related activities and take effective measures to prevent similar acts from happening," Ma said at a regularly scheduled news briefing.
Ma did not describe what happened, nor did he say in what way the U.S. ship had violated international and Chinese laws. But China regards most of the area of the South China Sea as its territory.
The confrontation took place about 75 miles south of China's Hainan island, near a naval base where Beijing has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, said Hans M. Kristensen, nuclear information project director at the Federation of American Scientists.
Writing in the federation's Web blog, Kristensen said the incident was "part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters."
The Pentagon reported that Chinese vessels had engaged in other aggressive behavior in the last week, including aircraft performing flybys and a patrol vessel shining a high-intensity spotlight on a U.S. naval ship in the Yellow Sea.
The latest incident "will make life harder for those in the Obama administration who want to ease the military pressure on U.S.-Chinese relations, and easier for hard-liners to argue their case," Kristensen said.
In Washington, China's actions were seen as part of a broader pattern of more provocative behavior by Beijing in recent years, including expanded territorial claims and stepped-up military activities.
"They seem to be more militarily aggressive, forward pushing, than we saw previously," Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I think the debate is still on in China as to whether, as their military power increases, it will be used for good or for pushing people around."
Beijing has long been suspicious of U.S. surveillance activities around China, even as many in Washington remain wary of Beijing's rapid military buildup. But relations between China and the new Obama administration started out on positive terms as Clinton was warmly received during her visit last month to Beijing. The two sides already had agreed to resume a high-level military dialogue that had been broken off last year by the Chinese in protest of a $6.5-billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
Shi Yinhong, professor of international politics at Beijing's Renmin University, said it was clear that both sides viewed Sunday's encounter as quite serious. The order for the Chinese ships to act, he said, probably came from a very high level.
Still, Shi said he did not see the incident as having a serious effect on bilateral ties. The Obama administration wants Chinese cooperation on economic issues, he said, and Chinese leaders want to build good relations with the U.S. to advance their international political objectives.
"Both Washington and Beijing will treat it as an individual event," he said. "Both sides will want to deal with it."
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.