The South China Sea has become a flashpoint that experts have warned could spark a conflict that could spiral into World War Three.
China lays claim to vast swathes of ocean and many islands – but some parts are also claimed by the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan.
America’s military presence and exercises in the area are a direct challenge to China’s claim, which Beijing has used to justify setting up military bases and even runways on the disputed islands.
Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said the USS McCampbell carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation “to challenge excessive maritime claims”.
The operation was not about any one country or to make a political statement, McMarr added.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the move had violated China’s and international law, and China had lodged “stern representations”.
He blasted: “We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation.”
The move comes as US officials joined talks in Beijing during a 90-day truce in a bitter trade war.
Asked about the timing of the operation during trade talks, Lu said resolving issues would benefit the two countries and the world.
He said: “Both sides have the responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this.”
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently blasts the US and its allies for freedom of navigation naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.