Tensions spiked in the South China Sea near the heavily disputed Paracel Islands on Monday after China's military said it "drove away" a US warship, according to Al Jazeera.
The Paracels – also called the Xisha Islands by Beijing – are claimed by numerous countries, including China, Vietnam, and the self-ruled island of Taiwan. The US sailed the USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, through the waters of the Paracels without government approval and undermined regional stability, the People's Liberation Army's Southern Theater Command said.
"We urge the United States to immediately stop such provocative actions," the Southern Theater Command said in a statement.
However, the US Navy Navy 7th Fleet said the Benfold had "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law" and rejected any claims by the Chinese that its warship had breached territorial waters.
The 7th Fleet said "innocent passage" is the right of all vessels under international marine law as reflected in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. What this means is that permission is not required to transit.
"The operation reflects our commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle," the US Navy said. "The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing PRC (the People's Republic of China) says otherwise will deter us."
Here's the latest US Navy Update Map via Stratfor that shows the approximate current locations of U.S. Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups worldwide (as of July 8).
Beijing has firmly claimed islands within the South China Sea are there's by heavily militarizing them. The region is expected to be rich in marine life and has significant hydrocarbon reserves.
Meanwhile, the Pacific has been cluttered with military ships, submarines, and aircraft from countries friend and foe of the US, in a series of naval drills. Read more about war preparations here.