“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” Davis said in a statement early on Saturday.
China’s Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement the U.S. action “severely violated the law.”
“It damaged the peaceful, safe and good order in relevant waters and is not beneficial to regional peace and stability,” said Yang.
This week’s action is not the first time in recent months the Pentagon has flexed its muscles in the area. In October, Chinese officials described as “dangerous and provocative” a U.S. decision to send a warship within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island developed by China.
U.S. officials are particularly worried by the growing territorial claims from China, which has launched an aggressive campaign to claim and build up islands in the South China Sea and is also scrambling to augment its military power at sea. A recent study warned the South China Sea could become “virtually a Chinese lake” by 2030 if China continues its rush to acquire new naval assets.
Defense Sec. Ashton Carter has signaled his intent to defy Chinese attempts to project expanding influence in the South China Sea, and to ensure that sea lanes remain open for international military and commercial use.
The Obama administration is facing pressure from critics to more actively defy Chinese claims and to reassure smaller Asian allies that the biggest Asian power won’t be permitted to expand unabated. But there are fears such patrols could lead to a dangerous escalation in military tensions between Beijing and Washington.
China has characterized such actions as an attempt to militarize the South China Sea, and has said U.S. shows of force may prompt it to accelerate construction on man-made islands.
Davis said were no Chinese ships in the area at the time of the destroyer’s transit, and the Pentagon did not notify any of the three countries of its plans to transit the area.
“This operation demonstrated … that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” Davis said.
Simon Denyer and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report from Beijing.