China’s defence ministry said a Chinese naval ship was sent to warn the US vessel to leave.
“The US side repeatedly sends military ships without permission into seas close to South China Seas islands, seriously threatening China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaging Sino-US military ties, and seriously harming regional peace and stability,” the ministry said.
“China’s military is resolutely opposed to this.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Reuters news agency, said the destroyer the USS Decatur travelled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands on Sunday.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
China’s foreign ministry said it strongly urged the United States to stop such “provocative” actions and to “immediately correct its mistakes”.
The operation also comes as military ties between the two countries have dived, with China angered by US sanctions on China’s military for buying Russian arms.
Beijing and Washington are also locked in a trade war in which they have imposed increasingly severe rounds of tariffs on each other’s imports.