A US warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China in the South China Sea, prompting quick condemnation from Beijing on Saturday.

US navy's guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, an operation Washington claims was aimed at countering efforts to curb freedom of navigation in the region, Reuters reported.

"This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants - China, Taiwan and Vietnam - to restrict navigation rights and freedoms," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

In October, guided-missile destroyer Lassen had sailed near one of the man-made islands China is building in the dispute waters.

China reacted angrily on Saturday and issued a statement saying Chinese ships confronted the US vessel, and "warned and expelled it swiftly".

However, the Pentagon spokesman said no ships from China's military were in the vicinity.

The US action "severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region's peace and stability," Defence Chinese Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Ying said the US action was highly irresponsible and that China's armed forces will take measures to safeguard the country's sovereignty and security.

Vietnam protests

China, which claims sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea, took the control over the Triton island in 1974, defeating Vietnamese forces in the Paracels. Vietnam lost more than 70 soldiers in the Chinese military offensive for the Paracels.

In 2014, China set up a drilling rig in waters near the Paracel Islands and in 2015 satellite images showed Beijing was building an airstrip on land reclaimed around the Spratlys.

More than 20 people were killed in nation-wide anti-China protests in Vietnam after China's rig move. China withdrew the rig after conducting drilling for two months.