WASHINGTON • A United States Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China and two others in the South China Sea yesterday, in an operation that the Pentagon said was aimed at challenging efforts to restrict freedom of navigation.
The US move prompted an angry response from China, which accused the American warship of violating Chinese laws by entering its territorial waters. China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) of world trade is shipped every year.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have competing claims.
Earlier, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said no ships from China's military were in the vicinity of the USS Curtis Wilbur when it passed near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands.
"This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants - China, Taiwan and Vietnam - to restrict navigation rights and freedoms," Captain Davis said, reflecting the US position that the crucial sea lane should be treated as international waters.
Capt Davis said "no claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law".
The US Navy conducted a similar exercise last October in which the guided-missile destroyer Lassen sailed close to one of China's manmade islands, drawing a rebuke from Beijing.
China's Ministry of National Defence said last night that its military sent warnings and drove away a US warship intruding into Chinese territorial waters.
"The Chinese troops stationed at the islands and naval ships and airplanes made an immediate response, took counter-measures and conducted identification and verification against the US warship," ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement.
The Chinese military will "take all the necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security no matter what provocative actions are made by the US side", he added.
Separately, in a statement condemning the operation, China's Foreign Ministry said: "The American warship has violated relevant Chinese laws by entering Chinese territorial waters without prior permission, and the Chinese side has taken relevant measures, including monitoring and admonishments."
The US Navy's operation followed calls in the US Congress for the Obama administration to follow up on the October exercise.
Tension has been building in the South China Sea.
After the freedom of navigation mission in October last year, US Air Force B-52 bombers flew near other contested Chinese-occupied islands in November.
Earlier this month, China landed two civilian airliners to test a newly built airstrip atop Fiery Cross Reef, which the Chinese have converted into an artificial island.
Military test flights are expected to follow.
During his visit to Beijing last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Washington's position that it "does not take sides on the sovereignty questions underlying the territorial disputes".
On Thursday, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, ignoring criticism from the United States, flew to Itu Aba in the Spratlys to reaffirm Taipei's sovereignty and said the trip was aimed at promoting peace.