USS America and USS Bunker Hill sailed near a Chinese research ship spotted close to a Petronas exploration vessel.
A US Navy guided-missile destroyer has sailed through waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, challenging China’s claim to the area.
In a statement on Wednesday, the American navy said USS Barry undertook the so-called “freedom of navigation operation” on Tuesday, a week after Beijing upped its claims in the area by designating an official administrative district for the islands.
The US sought to assert the “rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law,” the Navy said in a statement.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose an unprecedented threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships,” it said.
The move came amid a rise in US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak after the virus emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The US State Department had earlier said China was taking advantage of the region’s focus on the coronavirus pandemic to “coerce its neighbours”.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump also accused China of wanting him to lose in the November presidential elections.
China claims the entire South China Sea, which is said to harbour valuable deposits of oil and gas, triggering a long-running dispute over maritime territory with countries across Southeast Asia.
The Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, while other parts of the sea are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
It was reported recently that a Malaysian oil exploration vessel was involved in a standoff with a Chinese research ship.
In a statement on the People’s Liberation Army website, the Chinese military said it had mobilised sea and air assets to track and warn the US vessel away from “Chinese territorial waters.”
The PLA accused the United States of “provocative acts” that “seriously violated international law and China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
The US action was “also incompatible with the current joint efforts of international community to fight against the COVID-19,” it said.
Last week, China sought to further advance its territorial claims when it announced that the Paracel and the nearby Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank and their surrounding waters would be administered under two new districts of Sansha city, which China created on nearby Woody Island in 2012.
It also announced official Chinese names for 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea, including reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, 55 of them submerged in water.
It also established a “mental-health facility” in Mischief Reef, which has been declared by the international tribunal in The Hague as within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China stakes its claim to the sea on its controversial nine-dash line demarcation; a 2,000 kilometre (1,242 mile) U-shaped dashed line that first appeared in maps of revolutionary China in the 1940s.
But the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected as illegal 2016 China’s claims to almost the entire sea, through which an estimated $3 trillion of trade pass each year.