A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China and two other states in the South China Sea on Saturday to counter efforts to limit freedom of navigation, the Pentagon said, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade is shipped every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said no ships from China's military were in the vicinity of the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur when it passed near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. Navy conducted a similar exercise in October in which the guided-missile destroyer Lassen sailed close to one of China's man-made islands, also drawing a rebuke from Beijing.
"This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants - China, Taiwan and Vietnam - to restrict navigation rights and freedoms," Davis said, reflecting the U.S. position that the crucial sea lane should be treated as international waters.
Davis said the latest operation sought to challenge policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas. He said the United States took no position on competing sovereignty claims to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea.
"No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law," Davis said.
China condemned the U.S. action as provocative.
"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," China's foreign ministry said.
China's defense ministry calling the American action "intentionally provocative and "irresponsible and extremely dangerous".
The ministry also said that Chinese navy vessels had taken responsive action, conducted identification checks and promptly gave warnings for the ship to keep its distance.
"Regardless of whatever provocative steps the American side takes, China's military will take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security," the ministry statement concluded.
The operation followed calls in Congress for the Obama administration to follow up on the October operation.
This month, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee criticized Obama for delaying further freedom of navigation patrols.
Senator John McCain said that allowed China to continue to pursue its territorial ambitions in the region, including by landing a plane on a man-made island in the Spratly Islands archipelago.
In a statement on Saturday, McCain said he was "encouraged" by the news.
"I continue to hope these operations will become so routine that China and other claimants will come to accept them as normal occurrences and releasing press statements to praise them will no longer be necessary," he said.
McCain added that the operation challenged the "excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States".