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.