China on Monday condemned as “dangerous and irresponsible” the weekend transit of a US warship within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea.
Tensions have mounted in the Sea over Beijing’s construction of artificial islands.
The Pentagon said the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur made the “innocent passage” Saturday off Triton Island in the Paracel island chain, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The US action was “highly dangerous and irresponsible”, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing, adding it “gravely harmed the peace and stability of the relevant region” in the pursuit of “American naval hegemony”.
A commentary by the official Xinhua news service said the sail-by “violated both Chinese and international law”.
“It is advisable for Washington to contribute more to regional peace and cooperation, rather than making waves in the South China Sea and then pointing a finger at others on trumped-up charges,” it said.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have rival claims.
Beijing has asserted its claims by rapidly building artificial islands in another South China Sea island chain, the Spratlys, raising tensions in the region.
Port facilities, airstrips and military buildings have gone up on the man-made islands, prompting US warnings that it would assert its rights to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.
While the United States takes no position on the various claims to the islands, it does not recognise any claimant’s right to territorial waters.
In October the US Navy sent a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of the Spratlys to press home the point.
The US has said that China‘s construction has led to militarisation of the region, and threatens free access to its waters and airspace.
China denies the claims, saying the facilities are mainly for civilian and defensive purposes.
“The US flexing of military muscle under the banner of ‘freedom of navigation’, its manufacturing of tensions, these are precisely the greatest causes currently pushing forward militarisation in the South China Sea”, Lu said.