China's top naval commander has told his US counterpart that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its "provocative acts" in the disputed seaway, the Chinese navy said on Friday.
Admiral Wu Shengli made the comments to US chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson during a video teleconference on Thursday, according to a Chinese naval statement.
The two officers held talks after a US warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing's man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago on Tuesday.
China has rebuked Washington over the patrol, the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits China effectively claims around its seven artificial islands in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
"If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war," the statement paraphrased Wu as saying.
"(I) hope the US side cherishes the good situation between the Chinese and US navies that has not come easily and avoids these kinds of incidents from happening again," Wu said.
Speaking earlier, a US official said the naval chiefs agreed to maintain dialogue and follow protocols to avoid clashes.
Scheduled port visits by US and Chinese ships and planned visits to China by senior US Navy officers remained on track, the official said.
"None of that is in jeopardy. Nothing has been cancelled," said the official.
Both officers agreed on the need to stick to protocols established under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
"They agreed that it's very important that both sides continue to use the protocols under the CUES agreement when they're operating close to keep the chances for misunderstanding and any kind of provocation from occurring," the US official said.
Indeed, Wu said he believed the Chinese and US navies had plenty of scope for cooperation and should both "play a positive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea".
A US Navy spokesman stressed Washington's position that US freedom of navigation operations were meant to "protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law".
Chinese warships followed the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, as it moved through the Spratlys on Tuesday. The US Navy is operating in a maritime domain bristling with Chinese ships.
While the US Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China's potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coastguard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea, security experts say.
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vietnam and Singapore, while Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan will attend a meeting of Southeast Asian defence ministers in Malaysia that US defence secretary Ash Carter is also due to attend.