Two U.S. Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China on Sunday, two U.S. officials told Reuters, in a move that drew condemnation from Beijing as President Donald Trump seeks its continued cooperation on North Korea.
In a move likely to anger Beijing, the Higgins, a guided-missile destroyer, and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
The two ships passed within 12 miles of four islands - Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody - according to a United States defence official.
The move "contravened Chinese and relevant worldwide law, seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty (and) harmed strategic mutual trust between the two militaries", it said.
The Chinese confronted the USA ships and warned them to leave, the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement posted on its website, but other details of the encounter were not immediately clear.
China's foreign minister said China had a right to take whatever measures it deemed fit on its island holdings, and the defence ministry criticized the USA move as "unconstructive", saying it would do nothing to change China's resolve to "play a role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region".
'China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend the country's sovereignty and security, ' it added, without elaborating.
The US military did not directly comment on Sunday's operation, but said US forces operate in the region daily.
US warships 'seriously infringed' on China – Beijing military chiefs | Daily Star
China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratlys group in the South China Sea and turned them into military outposts with airfields, radars, and missile defences.
This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
The Pentagon cited strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Islands.
FONOPS are regularly conducted in disputed seas throughout the world.
But China will miss out on the exercises this year, which are held in Hawaii, following Mattis' decision.
'We have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
"The United States naval vessels Antietam and Higgins entered without Chinese government permission into territorial waters" around the islands, which China calls the Xisha Islands, Mr Wu said in the statement.