(CNN) -

A Chinese fighter jet made several "dangerous" and "unprofessional" passes at a U.S. Navy plane this week -- coming as close as 20 feet at one point -- in what the White House called a "deeply concerning provocation."

The incident occurred Tuesday in international air space in the South China Sea about 135 miles east of the Chinese island of Hainan, the Pentagon said on Friday.

Rear. Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman, described a flamboyant approach by what he called an armed Chinese fighter jet that three times crossed beneath the Navy Poseidon patrol aircraft with "only 100 feet of separation."

"The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly towards the P-8 Poseidon, we believe to make a point of showing its weapons load," he said.

It then "flew directly under and alongside the P-8, bringing their wing tips to within 20 feet, and then conducted a roll ... over the P-8, passing within 45 feet," Kirby added.

Sounding exasperated, he called the maneuvers by the Chinese jet "pretty aggressive, very unprofessional."

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said it was "obviously a deeply concerning provocation and we have communicated directly to the Chinese government our objection to this type of action."

Rhodes said the United States has encouraged "constructive military-to-military ties with China" and "this type of action ... violates the spirit of that engagement."

China slammed U.S. accusations, calling them "totally groundless" and saying its jet was within safe distance.

The Chinese fighter jet was deployed to make "regular identification and verification," Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told state-run Xinhua news agency.

Encounter recalls 2001 incident

In April 2001, a U.S. reconnaissance plane carrying a crew of 24 collided with a Chinese fighter, forcing the U.S. craft to make an emergency landing on Hainan.

Blaming the United States for the incident, Chinese officials said their fighter crashed into the South China Sea -- killing the pilot.

The United States called for the immediate return of the high-tech EP-3 aircraft and the crew.

The crew were allowed to return to the United States 11 days after the collision -- and the dismantled spy plane was flown home some weeks later.