A US Navy guided-missile destroyer in the Pacific Ocean.

  • Photos of the standoff between the US Navy destroyer Decatur and a Chinese warship have surfaced online, and they show just how close the Chinese ship came to colliding with the American vessel.

A Chinese destroyer challenged a US Navy warship in what US officials called an "unsafe and unprofessional" encounter in the tense South China Sea on Sunday.

The People's Liberation Army Navy ship, reportedly the Type 052C Luyang II-class guided-missile destroyer Lanzhou (170), part of the Chinese navy's South Sea Fleet, took on the US Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Decatur (DDG-73) during a close approach near Gaven Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The Chinese vessel "conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings" for the US Navy ship to "leave the area," Pacific Fleet said in an official statement Monday. US Navy photos first obtained by the maritime-focused news site gCaptain and confirmed to CNN by three American officials show just how close the Chinese destroyer got to the US ship.

(The USS Decatur is pictured left, and the Chinese destroyer is on the right.)

The USS Decatur was forced to maneuver out of the way to avoid a collision with the Chinese vessel, which reportedly came within 45 yards of the American ship, though the pictures certainly look a lot closer to the 45 feet originally reported.

Ankit Panda, a foreign-policy expert who is a senior editor at The Diplomat, called the incident "the PLAN's most direct and dangerous attempt to interfere with lawful US Navy navigation in the South China Sea to date."

China condemned the US for its operations in the South China Sea, where China is attempting to bolster its claims through increased militarization. The US does not recognise Chinese claims, which were previously discredited by an international tribunal.

Beijing said the US "repeatedly sends military ships without permission close to South China Seas islands, seriously threatening China's sovereignty and security, seriously damaging Sino-US military ties, and seriously harming regional peace and stability," adding that the Chinese military was opposed to this behavior.

The latest incident followed a series of US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress long-range bomber flights through the East China and South China seas. Beijing called the flights "provocative," but Secretary of Defense James Mattis insisted that the flights would not mean anything if China had not militarised the waterway.

"If it was 20 years ago and had they not militarised those features there, it would have been just another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or wherever," he said last Wednesday.

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