Map of Paracel Islands in South China Sea.
Map of Paracel Islands in South China Sea.

A U.S. Navy warship has passed through waters claimed by China near disputed islands in the South China Sea to counter what Washington says is Beijing's attempt to limit freedom of navigation.

China condemned the action late Friday, calling it a "provocation" and a "gravely illegal act."

A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said the destroyer USS Decatur passed near the Paracel Islands in a "routine, lawful manner" Friday, challenging China's "excessive maritime claims."  He said the warship did not come within the 12-nautical-mile (22.22 kilometers) international law territorial limit of the islands, which are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

China does not recognize the territorial limit, and accused the U.S. of being a "troublemaker" in the region.  The destroyer's action drew a warning from Chinese warships shadowing the Decatur, ordering it to leave the area.

The U.S. Navy has now conducted four "freedom of navigation" operations in the past year in various parts of the South China Sea.