BEIJING • China has slammed the United States for sailing a warship near disputed territory in the South China Sea, saying the move was a "serious illegal act" and "deliberately provocative".
Two Chinese naval vessels warned off a US ship after it entered "Chinese territorial waters" near the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in Chinese, the Defence Ministry said in a statement on its website late on Friday.
China controls all of the islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The ship's "entrance into China's territorial waters is a serious illegal act and a deliberately provocative act", the Foreign Ministry said, adding that it had made "solemn representations" to Washington.
In a separate online statement, the ministry said the action had "seriously violated China's sovereignty and security interests, and had seriously broken relevant Chinese law and international law".
The Pentagon said on Friday that it had sent the destroyer USS Decatur close to the Paracel Islands, but the ship had not passed within the 12 nautical mile zone that international law defines as territorial waters.
The ship transited the area in "a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident", a spokesman said.
The manoeuvre was the third South China Sea "freedom of navigation" operation conducted this year by the US, which has repeatedly stressed that it will ignore China's "excessive" maritime claims.
The operation was the first since a tribunal at The Hague in July ruled that there was no legal basis to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea - a verdict Beijing dismissed vehemently.
Several other nations across the region, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have rival claims to various parts of the sea.