BEIJING - China said on Thursday that Chinese warships warned a US Navy warship to leave after it sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea.
Speaking at a monthly news briefing in Beijing, Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said China had lodged stern representations to the US over the patrol and that such moves were not conducive to peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang also said China urged the US to correct its mistake and refrain from further patrols, adding such actions were very likely to cause unexpected air and sea accidents.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey sailed on a "freedom of navigation operation" close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
The so-called "freedom of navigation operation," which is sure to anger China, comes as US President Donald Trump is seeking Beijing's cooperation to rein in ally North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Territorial waters are generally defined by UN convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state's coastline.
One US official said it was the first operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China's claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.
The US patrol, the first of its kind since October, marked the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The United States has criticized China's construction of man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement.
US allies and partners in the region had grown anxious as the new administration held off on carrying out South China Sea operations during its first few months in office.
Last month, top US commander in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Harry Harris, said the United States would likely carry out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea soon, without offering details.
Still, the US military has a long-standing position that these operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.