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A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft takes off from Perth International Airport in this April 16, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Greg Wood/Pool/Files

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Saturday called US criticism of an approach by one of its jets to a US Navy patrol plane off the Chinese coast earlier this week "completely groundless" and said its pilot had maintained a safe distance from the US aircraft.

The strongly-worded statement attributed to Ministry of National Defence spokesman Yang Yujun was a response to a diplomatic complaint the Pentagon filed with Beijing on Friday.

The complaint concerned an August 19 encounter about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in which a Chinese fighter jet came within meters (yards) of a US P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane and, the US claimed, performed acrobatic manoeuvres around it.

In its statement, the Chinese defence ministry said the J-11 jet was conducting routine checks and described the pilot's actions as professional.

The United States' frequent short-range reconnaissance missions threatened the safety of both militaries, it said.

It urged the US to reduce short-range reconnaissance against China and to respect international law and conventions.

(Reporting by Alexandra Harney, editing by Rosalind Russell)

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Reuters