China has been busy building up power in the region in a bid to oust the dominance of the US Navy

CHINESE warships have confronted US Navy vessels today in what has been described as a “serious incident”.

The tense naval drama unfolded after the American warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China.

The presence of the US warships was slammed by Beijing just as President Donald Trump seeks to make peace with North Korea to avoid a serious war breaking out.

The operation in the South China Sea was the latest bid to counter what Washington condemns as brazen efforts to take control of the strategical important seas.

The hotly contested region is also rich in fossil fuels which China desperately needs to feed is industrialising economy with cheap energy.

While this naval drills had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time.

It comes just days after the Pentagon uninvited China from a major US-hosted naval drill.

The contested South China Sea

The American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.

This spot is among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbours.

The US military vessels carried out manoeuvring operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, one of the officials said.

Many of the artificial territories are now bristling with weapons like this one called Woody Island

China’s Defence Ministry expressed its anger at the presence today of the American ships, saying it had sent its own vessels and aircraft to intercept them.

The move “contravened Chinese and relevant international law, seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty and harmed strategic mutual trust between the two militaries,” it said.

In a separate statement, China’s Foreign Ministry urged the United States to stop such actions.

“China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend the country’s sovereignty and security,” it added, without elaborating.

Pentagon chiefs have long accused Beijing of rapidly building-up its military power in the South China Sea as part of ambitions to control the oil and gas rich seas, through which huge amounts of shipping sails through on its way to North and South American seaports.

In March, a US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Chinese officials have accused Washington of viewing their country in suspicious, “Cold War” terms.