BEIJING -- Chinese navy officers poured scorn on the United States after a weekend naval confrontation, and China's Defense Ministry asked the U.S. to prevent it happening again, amid lingering but muted tensions between the two.
Five Chinese boats jostled on Sunday with a U.S. Navy survey vessel off China's southern Hainan island, a major base for Beijing's expanding navy.
A U.S. intelligence official has said the confrontation showed China's increasingly aggressive military stance in the South China Sea.
But Beijing insists the U.S. ship was in the wrong, and its Defense Ministry has urged the Pentagon to prevent the "reoccurrence of similar acts," state media said.
"We urge the United States to respect our legal interests and security concern," the official Xinhua agency quoted ministry spokesman Huang Xueping saying late on Wednesday.
There have been no signs, however, that the fracas will derail broader political and economic negotiations while Washington and Beijing wrestle with the global financial crisis.
Beijing was not the side that made the spat public and did not want it to fester, said Shen Dingli, an expert on China-U.S. security issues at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"The military isn't the big issue, the economy is," said Shen.
"But China wanted to send a message, 'Respect me.'...China's navy has gained a bit more strength and wanted to let the U.S. know it won't have the same free rein it assumed it had before."
In comments carried by the official China News Service, Chinese navy officers repeated their government's view that a U.S. naval vessel had violated their country's sovereignty.
"The Americans are villains crying foul first," said Zhang Deshun, a Chinese navy deputy chief of staff, the China News Service reported.
"The U.S. side has twisted the facts. The U.S. survey ship was operating in China's exclusive economic zone on its continental shelf. Our vessels were just going about normal business ... This was itself harming China's sovereignty."
Most Chinese newspapers and websites did not feature the spat, suggesting the government does not want to expand the dispute when both sides want to avoid friction that could unsettle already battered financial markets.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is visiting Washington to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama at the G20 summit next month.
"This incident won't damage overall relations. Both sides have too much else to deal with to let this intensify," said Zhu Feng, an expert on China-U.S. relations at Peking University.
But the comments from China's navy suggest Beijing is hardening its claims to stretches of the South China Sea.
"If people are loitering outside your bamboo fence and the owner goes out to check on things, and then they say you've violated their rights, what's the sense in that?" said Jin Mao, a Chinese vice admiral, according to the news agency.
The United States accused China of harassing the U.S. ship, the Impeccable, in international waters off Hainan, site of a Chinese submarine base and other naval installations.
The Pentagon has said the U.S. ship, an unarmed ocean surveillance vessel, was conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, 75 miles south of Hainan.
China insists the Impeccable's operations were neither routine nor legal. And a U.S. expert said the ship appeared to have a clear military task.
The Impeccable "has the important military mission of using its ... passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track submarines," Hans Kristensen, a security expert with the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in a blog commentary about the dispute (www.fas.org).
The U.S. ship may have been monitoring China's new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, which had been spotted at a base near Yulin on Hainan, he wrote.
Shen, the Chinese expert, said "China won't be as accommodating as before" about U.S. forays into those seas.
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