* US raised incident at highest level in China
* Beijing yet to comment on near miss
* Heightened tensions over China's assertiveness
WASHINGTON/SHANGHAI - A US guided missile cruiser operating in international waters in the South China Sea was forced to take evasive action last week to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship manoeuvring nearby, the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.
The incident came as the USS Cowpens was operating near China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and at a time of heightened tensions in the region following Beijing's declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone farther north in the East China Sea, a US defence official said.
Another Chinese warship manoeuvred near the Cowpens in the incident on Dec. 5, and the Cowpens was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision, the Pacific Fleet said in its statement.
"Eventually, effective bridge-to-bridge communications occurred between the US and Chinese crews, and both vessels manoeuvred to ensure safe passage," said the defence official.
The near miss was the most significant US-China maritime incident in the South China Sea since 2009, said security expert Carl Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Heightened tensions over China's military assertiveness have raised concerns that an minor incident in disputed maritime waters, the South China Sea and East China Sea, could quickly escalate.
Both Japan and China lay claim to islands in the East China Sea and have scrambled aircraft in recent months over the disputed seas and conducted naval patrols.
China and several ASEAN nations have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The US has raised the latest incident at a "high level"with the Chinese government, according to a State Department official quoted by the US military's Stars and Stripes newspaper.
In Beijing, the Chinese foreign and defence ministries have yet to respond to questions about the incident, while China's often-nationalistic on-line platforms were filling with debate about the near-miss.