US destroyer sails close to contested islands in S. China Sea: Pentagon

The USS Decatur at the Israeli port of Haifa in 2009 (AFP Photo/Jack Guez) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - A US destroyer sailed close to a cluster of islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea on Friday, the Pentagon said, amid continued tensions in the contested waterway.

The USS Decatur passed close to the Paracel Islands and "conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident," Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross said.

"This operation demonstrated that coastal States may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law."

The maneuver is the third South China Sea "freedom of navigation" operation conducted this year by the United States, which has repeatedly stressed it will ignore China's "excessive" maritime claims.

Ross said the Decatur did not sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands, but crossed through a broader swath of ocean claimed by China.

Friday's operation was the first since a July ruling by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled there was no legal basis to China's claims to nearly all of the sea -- a verdict Beijing dismissed vehemently.

China that month held a week of military drills around the Paracels in the northern part of the South China Sea, during which other ships were prohibited from entering the waters.

Several other nations across the region including the Philippines and Vietnam have rival claims to various parts of the South China Sea.

China has been accused of doing massive environmental damage to the sea by building artificial islands, some with airstrips, capable of hosting military facilities.

The issue is a source of ongoing tension and anger in the region, and Friday's US operation is likely to further inflame Beijing's ire.