A Chinese destroyer came aggressively close to a US Navy ship in the South China Sea, forcing it to manoeuvre to prevent a collision, American military officials said.

The encounter could worsen tensions between the nations, already at odds over a trade dispute.

US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt Cmdr Tim Gorman said the Chinese warship approached the USS Decatur in an “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” on Sunday near Gaven Reefs in the South China Sea.

The Chinese destroyer “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area,” Lt Cmdr Gorman said.

It approached within 45 yards of the Decatur’s bow, forcing it to move, Lt Cmdr Gorman said.

China claims most of the strategic waterway and has built islands on reefs and equipped them with military facilities such as airstrips, radar domes and missile systems.

A B-52 bomberChina has labelled a recent mission by nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers over the disputed South China Sea as ‘provocative’ (AP)

The Chinese defence ministry said it opposes the US warship’s entry into the waters “around China’s islands and reefs”.

It confirmed that the Luoyang, a Chinese missile destroyer, was immediately deployed to identify the US warship and drive it away.

The ministry said it strongly urged the US to stop its “provocative” actions.

Relations between the US and China have deteriorated over an escalating trade dispute, but ties have worsened in recent weeks after a US decision to issue economic sanctions over Beijing’s purchase of Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missile equipment.

The Chinese government said the US had no right to interfere in Chinese military cooperation with Russia.

In response to the sanctions, China summoned the American ambassador and defence attache to deliver a protest, and recalled its navy commander from a US trip.

US defence secretary Jim Mattis has since dropped plans to visit China in October for talks.