updated 5/5/2009 2:01:58 PM ET 2009-05-05T18:01:58

The Pentagon Tuesday played down a confrontation between Chinese vessels and one of its Navy surveillance ships, taking a decidedly more low-key tone than during similar incidents two months ago.

In what has become almost a routine cat-and-mouse game on the seas, there have been four incidents in the past month in which Chinese-flagged fishing vessels maneuvered too close to two unarmed ships crewed by civilians and used by the Pentagon to do underwater surveillance and submarine hunting missions, two defense officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss some of the incidents and details that the Pentagon has not yet released, adding that they fear such maneuvers are not just dangerous in themselves but could lead to escalated incidents.

The Pentagon did release a brief statement on the latest confrontation in which two Chinese fishing vessels came dangerously close — to within 30 yards — of the USNS Victorious Friday as it was operating in the Yellow Sea.

Actions 'unsafe and dangerous'
The Victorious crew sounded its alarm and shot water from its fire hoses to try to deter the vessels in an hour-long incident, one official said. The vessels didn't leave until the Victorious radioed a nearby Chinese military vessel for help, said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman.

After incidents in March that included similar though apparently more aggressive Chinese maneuvers, the Pentagon protested to Beijing officials and issued a strong public statement calling the Chinese actions harassment.

But on Tuesday, Whitman declined to characterize what the Chinese vessels were trying to do, saying only that their actions were "unsafe and dangerous."

Asked why the tone of the U.S. statement was muted this time, he said: "We will be developing a way forward to deal with this diplomatically."

"USNS Victorious was conducting routine operations on Friday, May 1, in international waters in the Yellow Sea in accordance with customary international law, when two Chinese fishing vessels closed in on and maneuvered in close proximity to the Victorious," the Pentagon said in its statement. "The intentions of the Chinese fishing vessels were not known."

It said the Victorious radioed the WAGOR 17 Chinese government ship, which came and shined a light on one of the fishing vessels. Both of the fishing vessels then moved away.

"WAGOR 17 took positive steps, pursuant to their obligation under Article 94 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, to ensure their flagged vessels navigate safely," the statement said.

Other incidents took place in April
Friday's incident followed others on Thursday, April 7 and April 8 in which Chinese-flagged fishing vessels approached too close to the Victorious and the USNS Loyal as they operated variously some 140 nautical miles, 185 miles and 200 miles off the coast of China, a defense official said privately.

In the first week of March, the Chinese over several days maneuvered vessels near Navy surveillance ships and sent aircraft to fly over them. In a particularly aggressive incident March 8, the Pentagon said, several Chinese ships surrounded the USNS Impeccable, coming within 25 feet and strewing debris in its path.

Those cases took place in a disputed band of water far off the Chinese coastline but within what Beijing considers a 200-mile economic zone under its control. The zone, under international law, gives a state certain rights over the use of natural resources there. That clashes with one of the cardinal principles of America's doctrine of ocean navigation — the right to unrestricted passage in international waters as long as vessels are not encroaching on the economic interests of the country they pass.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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