A Navy warship conducted an operation to contest China's claims of controlling international waters in the South China Sea, the Pacific Fleet said Monday.
China responded by sending ships and aircraft to confront the vessel, the Chinese Foreign Minister said.
Lt. Rachel McMarr, a Fleet spokeswoman, said the guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell conducted a freedom of navigation operation on Monday by sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.
The operation was designed to "challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," she said in a statement.
The operation is part of a series of maneuvers by Navy warships to challenge Chinese claims of owning up to 90 percent of the South China Sea, including disputed islands in the northern and southern parts of the sea.
The strategic waterway is used to transship an estimated $3.5 trillion in international trade annually and has been the scene of tense standoffs between U.S. and Chinese forces.
In October, a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close to the USS Decatur, a Navy warship transiting the South China Sea. The Chinese ship passed within 45 yards of the Decatur and threatened the U.S. destroyer, warning it to leave the area.
The Decatur ignored the threat and radioed back that the ship was conducting "innocent passage"—sailing in territorial waters of another state, a response that undermined the Pentagon's overall strategy of challenging China's expansive maritime claims and defining international waters.
Passage within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island, as the McCampbell did, is a direct challenge and usually involves some type of military maneuver. McMarr and a Pentagon spokesman did not say whether the warship conducted activities inside the 12-nautical mile limit of the Paracels.
"U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea," McMarr said. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe."
McMarr sought to minimize the fallout from the naval passage saying the Navy conducts routine and regular freedom of navigation operations and will continue the operations in the future.
The operations "are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements," she said.
In June, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Chinese political and military leaders during a visit to Beijing that the United States and China need to resolve their differences over the South China Sea and other Asian waters that China is claiming to control. Mattis said unless the differences are ironed out, the two nations could find themselves in a military conflict.
The Paracels are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan; in 1974 Vietnamese and Chinese forces clashed over the islands. Three Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a shootout and others wounded. The battle marked the beginning of Chinese control over the islands.
Woody Island in the Parcels is the location of a major Chinese military base and created a city that is the central to Chinese attempts to take over the South China Sea.
In May, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry denounced Chinese military drills on Woody Island that included landings by several nuclear-capable H-6 China bombers.
"Vietnam demands that China put an end to these activities immediately, stop militarization, and seriously respect Vietnam's sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands," a ministry's spokesman, Le Thi Thu Hang, said in a statement.
Beijing reacted harshly to news of Monday's naval operation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing that the McCampbell's passage through territorial waters of the Paracels, called the Xisha Islands by China, was done without "permission from the Chinese side."
"The Chinese side immediately sent a military vessel and aircraft to conduct verification and identification on the U.S. ship and warned it to leave," Lu said. "We have lodged stern representations with the U.S. side."
China insisted that the warship passage violated "Chinese laws and relevant international laws," a propaganda response since China's Communist Party-led government does not operate under rule of law as defined by most non-communist states.
China has reclaimed some 3,200 acres of land in building up disputed islands in the sea, mainly in the Spratlys in the south and the Paracels in the north.
The buildup took place during the administration of Barack Obama that halted all Navy freedom of navigation operations and most aerial surveillance flights over the sea in a bid to appease Beijing.
Under pressure from Congress, warship passages were re-launched late in the Obama administration.
However, China began militarizing the disputed islands by building facilities and by 2016 had deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some islands—in violation of a pledge made by Chinese president Xi Jinping to Obama in 2015.
In April, the new commander of the Indo-Pacific command revealed that China has fully militarized a string of islands and is now capable of controlling the entire South China Sea.
The People's Liberation Army, the Communist Party-led army, has built a variety of radar, electronic attack, and missile capabilities on the Spratly Islands, including Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said.
"The PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants," Davidson said. "In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States."
Additionally, the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, a United Nations organ, ruled in July 2016 that China's claims to control up to 90 percent of the South China Sea were baseless.
The court ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines government that challenged China's assertion that a vaguely defined "Nine-dash Line" covering most of the South China Sea was illegal under international law.
Islands in the sea, that is used for fishing by several states and also holds large underwater oil and gas resources are claimed by several states, including China, Vietnam, Philippines, and Taiwan.
"The Tribunal concluded that, as between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,'" the court said in announcing its decision.
China rejected the international legal ruling and has continued to claim sovereignty over the waterway.
Lu said the action "infringed upon China's sovereignty, and undermined peace, security, and order of the relevant waters."
"The Chinese side firmly opposes the relevant action by the U.S. side and urges the U.S. to immediately stop such provocations," he said. "We will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard our national sovereignty and security."
The operation came as officials from both the United States and China were conducting talks on ending the trade war launched by President Trump in response to unfair Chinese trade practices and large-scale Chinese theft of American technology.
A Pentagon spokesman had no comment on the Chinese response to the freedom of navigation.
Lu sidestepped a question on whether the Navy action would affect the trade talks.
"Properly resolving all kind of issues between the two sides, including economic and trade issues, are beneficial to the two countries and the whole world," Lu said. "Both China and the U.S. are responsible for creating the necessary positive atmosphere for this."