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.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur passed near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, in what the Pentagon said was a challenge to attempts by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights and freedoms.
The Chinese government, which moved swiftly to condemn to sailing on Saturday, said the United States was acting dangerously and irresponsibly.
“The so-called freedom of navigation plans and acts that the United States has upheld for many years in reality do not accord with generally recognized international law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.
It also “ignores numerous littoral states’ sovereignty and security and maritime rights, seriously harming relevant regional peace and stability”, he added.
“Its essence is to push the United States’ maritime hegemony in the name of freedom of navigation, which has always been resolutely opposed by most of the international community, especially certain developing nations. What the United States has done is dangerous and irresponsible.”
One of the main causes of the militarization of the South China Sea is the United States’ playing the freedom of navigation card and “creating tensions”, Lu said.
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.
In an editorial on Monday, the influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said the latest move by the United States showed how Washington was “circling to contain” China and that China’s military had few ways of stopping such patrols.
China thus needs to spend more on its armed forces, the paper added.
“There is a long way to go before China can have an equal footing with the U.S. Such equality can only be achieved with the build-up of strategic strength,” it said.