A U.S. navy warship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday, a U.S. Department of Defense official said, days after China warned criticism of its claim would rebound like a coiled spring.
The freedom of navigation operation by the USS William P. Lawrence, traveling within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, was to "challenge excessive maritime claims of some claimants in the South China Sea", Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said.
"These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise," Urban said in an emailed statement.
"No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law."
Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway and Washington is concerned China will use it to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.
The Pentagon last month called on China to reaffirm it has no plans to deploy military aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands after Beijing used a military plane to evacuate sick workers from the Fiery Cross airstrip.
The move comes ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Vietnam later this month.
China has reacted with anger to previous U.S. freedom of navigation operations, and says that there has never been a problem with freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea.
Criticism of China over the South China Sea will rebound like a coiled spring, a Chinese diplomat said on Friday, as a U.S. warship visited Shanghai against a backdrop of rising tension in the region.