A Chinese warship has forced an American destroyer to change course in the South China Sea by sailing close to it in an "unsafe and unprofessional" manner, the US Navy says.
China's Defense Ministry countered that the USS Decatur should never have traveled through those waters in its "freedom of navigation" mission, provoking Beijing to order a Luyang-class warship to force it away from the Spratly Islands.
"The PRC destroyer approached within 45 yards of Decatur's bow, after which Decatur maneuvered to prevent a collision", spokesman Charlie Brown said.
A Chinese warship sailed within yards of a U.S. Navy destroyer in an "aggressive maneuver" that risked collision, a U.S. official said. Such operations need to be within 12 nautical miles of an island or territory to constitute a challenge under worldwide law.
In addition, last week the B-52s also participated in a US-Japan joint military exercise in the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing both claim sovereignty over the group of uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
The operation also comes as military ties between the two countries have dived, with China also angered by US sanctions on China's military for buying Russian arms and by USA support for self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
The ministry said China has irrefutable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the waters around them, and the situation there is progressing well thanks to the hard work of China and countries in Southeast Asia. "We strongly urge the U.S. side to immediately correct its mistake and stop such provocative actions to avoid undermining China-U.S. relations and regional peace and stability", Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday in a statement.
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In a statement, the Chinese Ministry of Defense said that its ship had "given a warning to leave" to the vessel after it entered the area 'without permission'.
In a 2016 ruling, the tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration - an intergovernmental organization that resolves worldwide disputes including territorial and maritime boundaries - concluded Gaven Reefs did not possess significant land features and thus lacked an exclusive economic zone, as China had claimed.
It added: "China's military is resolutely opposed to this".
The U.S. Navy regularly conducts FONOPs to challenge maritime claims the United States considers excessive. The U.S. would "continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere worldwide law allows", said Gorman, the Pacific Fleet spokesman.
China conducted "live-fire shooting drills" in the South China Sea over the weekend in a show of force in the contested region.
Beijing and Washington are locked in a trade war in which they have imposed increasingly severe rounds of tariffs on each other's imports.
Amid the increasing tensions, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly canceled his planned trip to China previously scheduled for October.