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The United States has lodged a formal protest with the government in Beijing, saying five Chinese ships harassed a U.S. surveillance vessel in international waters, in actions the Pentagon described as illegal, unprofessional and dangerous.

The incident took place on Sunday about 75 miles off the coast of Hainan island, just south of the Chinese mainland. The U.S. vessel, the Impeccable, was conducting a surveillance mission that involved towing sonar equipment designed for anti-submarine warfare, Pentagon officials said.

The Chinese vessels sailed within 25 feet of the U.S. ship, waved flags and ordered the Impeccable to leave, Pentagon officials said. Two of the Chinese ships blocked the Impeccable after it requested safe transit, while Chinese sailors dropped pieces of wood in its path and tried to hook the cables towing the sonar equipment, the officials said.

The Impeccable crew sprayed some of the Chinese sailors with a fire hose. Some of the Chinese sailors stripped to their underwear.

The officials said the Chinese ships appeared to be a naval intelligence vessel, two smaller trawlers, a fisheries patrol boat and an official oceanographic ship.

The Impeccable did not carry large-caliber weapons and was operated by civilians for the Military Sealift Command, Pentagon officials said.

The surveillance mission, focused on undersea warfare, may be of particular interest to the Chinese military, which has invested heavily in a new fleet of diesel-powered attack submarines. Pentagon officials say that while the diesel variety is not as potent as the Navy’s nuclear fast-attack submarines, the submarines are cheaper and can be purchased in greater numbers, giving the Chinese the potential to overwhelm U.S. defenses at sea.

The Pentagon officials emphasized that the incident was a worrisome violation of standard rules of conduct at sea.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has lodged an official protest, and the Pentagon repeated the complaint to the Chinese defense attache in Washington, officials said.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, denounced the Chinese actions as “reckless, dangerous and unprofessional.”

President Barack Obama will have an opportunity to discuss Sunday’s incident with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, when the two meet next month in London at a Group of 20 session of global economic powers.

The incident, less than two months after the inauguration of Obama, immediately drew comparisons to Chinese actions just weeks into the first term of President George W. Bush.

In April 2001, a Chinese jet-fighter buzzed a Navy surveillance airplane in international airspace over the South China Sea, causing a midair collision that killed the Chinese pilot and resulted in the detention of the 24-member American crew for 11 days after their plane made an emergency landing on Hainan island.

That episode presented the new Bush administration with its first foreign policy challenge.