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.
“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.
The Navy conducted a similar exercise in October in which the guided-missile destroyer Lassen sailed close to one of China’s manmade islands, drawing a rebuke from Beijing.
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.
The Chinese foreign ministry responded Saturday evening with a statement on its website condemning the action.
“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 in a statement.
China’s defense ministry followed up later Saturday night with a far more forceful statement on its website, calling the American action “intentionally provocative and “irresponsible and extremely dangerous.”
The ministry also said that Chinese navy vessels had immediately 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.
He said that allowed China to continue to pursue its territorial ambitions in the region, including by landing a plane on a manmade island in the Spratly Islands archipelago.