BEIJING, China - Even as the U.S. and China remained locked in talks over de-escalation of the ongoing trade war this week, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea that is claimed by China.
The move by the U.S. Navy managed to cause anger in Beijing, which has lodged "stern representations" with the U.S.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet confirmed that a U.S. warship sailed through the South China Sea to challenge China's "excessive maritime challenge."
According to a statement by U.S. Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr, the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell patrolled near the Parcel Islands challenging China's claim to the region.
The Pacific Fleet confirmed that the USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands of Tree, Lincoln and Woods in a 'freedom of navigation operation.'
McMarr said that the operation was not about any one country or to make a political statement.
Adding that the visit was intended to "preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law."
The U.S. action triggered a response by China, which scrambled warships and aircraft to intercept USS McCampbell.
Further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that the conduct of the U.S. ship had violated China's and international law.
Kang said in a statement, "We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation," adding that China had sent military ships and aircraft to identify and warn off the ship.
He added that resolving issues would benefit the two countries and the world and added, "Both sides have the responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this."
Brutish claims challenged
For several years now, China has been locked in dispute with its neighbors, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan - that have competing claims in the strategic waterways.
While China has managed to maintain its dominance over the South China Sea, constructing artificial islands and deploying its weapons and defences in the waterways - in recent years, its aggressive claims have been challenged by the U.S.
The world's two top economies have engaged in a war of words over the repeated and contentious Freedom of Navigation exercises conducted by the U.S. in the South China Sea.
China has repeatedly rebuked the U.S. over its Freedom of Navigation exercises in the resource-rich waterways, through which about $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes by each year.
China has managed to ward off threats from the other, less powerful neighbours that also claim parts of the South China Sea - through its aggressive tactics and growing financial clout in the Asia Pacific region.
Yet, the country has refrained from responding back harshly in the face of repeated challenges by the U.S., Australia and more recently even the U.K.
Instead, China has insisted that it has sovereignty over the mineral rich waterways and has pursued its brutish claims by discreetly constructing artificial islands throughout the waterway.
The country has constructed military bases on these artificial landmasses in the vital waterways, reinforced them and armed them with military equipment.
In May 2018, outrage against China's militarization of the artificial islands in the South China Sea grew more loud after the country landed its H-6K strategic bomber on an outpost in the Paracels, Woody Island for the first time.
Yet, despite the criticism, China has continued reinforcing and arming its bases in the Paracel Islands and farther south in the Spratly Islands - by deploying missiles and radar equipment.
While China claims its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, international experts believe this is part of Beijing's concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.
The U.S. administration under the former President Barack Obama repeatedly rebuked China's domineering actions in the disputed waterway.
The Obama administration aimed at merely warning China against pursuing its unlawful claims and carried out several 'International Freedom of Navigation' operations.
However, under the Presidency of Donald Trump, the operation aimed at challenging China in the South China Sea has grown more aggressive and direct.
The Freedom of Navigation exercises by the U.S. over the last 12 months have become more frequent and have featured mightier military power - including powerful U.S. warships.
In response to the more prominent U.S. challenge, China has been boosting its defenses too and has specifically enhanced its naval forces over the last two years under the supremacy of President Xi Jinping.
China has often responded to U.S. threats by conducting menacing counter operations but on the world stage it has responded to allegations of "militarization" by warning against threats to its "sovereignty," and maintaining that the country is committed to "non-confrontation."