A USA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destroyer the USS Decatur traveled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands on Sunday.
The Chinese navy's actions forced the Decatur to maneuver to avoid a collision, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet, Capt. Charlie Brown, said in a statement. Likely taken by an American drone or by the Decatur's Sea Hawk helicopter, they show a Chinese destroyer maneuvering just 45 yards in front of Decatur.
These types of missions demonstrate that the United States does not recognize China's territorial claims to the South China Sea.
Beijing has blasted the operation of the "freedom of navigation" the american vessel.
China has claimed a large swathe of the South China Sea as its own, turning reefs and shoals into artificial islands and outfitting them with military-grade airfields, weapons, and military-grade sensors.
"So make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay", Mattis said at the time. "Our interests and the region's are inextricably intertwined". Later Oct. 1, the South Korean military detected North Korean soldiers engaged in what it believed was demining on the northern part of the sites, a South Korean defense official said on condition of animosity, citing department rules. While not disputing details, China said Decatur had "violated China's indisputable sovereignty and seriously undermined relations between the two countries and the two militaries".
The islands are mostly uninhabited but are close to busy shipping lanes - lanes which the USA has an interest in protecting.
On Monday, a United States defence official said that security talks due to take place later this month in Beijing between Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart had been cancelled.
Pence is expected to assert the rights of freedom of navigation of the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, wherever worldwide law allows, and to censure China for luring away three of Taiwan's Latin American allies.
China opposes the entry of USA warships into the waters around the reefs, the Chinese defense ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
The operation also comes as military ties between the two countries have dived, with China also angered by USA sanctions on China's military for buying Russian arms and by U.S. support for self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
The Chinese Defense Ministry claimed its ship merely gave the U.S. Navy vessel "a warning to leave" after it entered the area "without permission".
The China Watch supplement appeared the same week the USA slapped $US200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, and carried stories about China buying soy beans from South America instead of Iowa.