The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed near the Spratly Islands — known as the Nansha Islands in China — in the southeastern South China Sea in a so-called “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP), the 7th Fleet statement said.

The US Navy operation in the island chain where China has built military foritifications on man-made islands challenged “restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, and Taiwan,” the statement said.

“In violation of international law, the PRC, Vietnam, and Taiwan purport to require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea of the relevant feature,” it added.

“Territorial sea” refers to the waters within 12 nautical miles of a nation’s coastline as recognized by international law.

The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim sovereignty over parts of the Spratly Islands, but the US Navy statement did not say its warship was challenging any of their claims.

Saturday’s operation was the fourth FONOP challenging Chinese claims this year and the second such operation for the Benfold in the past four days, according to Navy statements.

On Wednesday, it performed the same mission in the Paracel Islands, a chain in the northern South China Sea known as the Xisha Islands in China, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Beijing on Wednesday reacted angrily to the US Navy’s Paracels FONOP.

“The actions of the US military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms of international relations,” People’s Liberaton Army (PLA) Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.

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The PLA said Wednesday the US Navy was increasing tensions in the region.

“Facts once again show that the United States is an out-and-out ‘South China Sea Risk Maker’ and ‘Disruptors of Regional Peace and Stability,'” the PLA statement said.

But Washington says the imposition of excessive maritime claims by China and others “pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity.”

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