The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold is shown in a 2012 file photo.
Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

A US Navy destroyer sailed near a disputed South China Sea island chain on Wednesday, challenging the restrictions imposed by China and others on transit through the area.

Lt. Nicholas Lingo, a spokesperson for the US Navy’s 7th Fleet headquartered in Japan, said it was the second so-called freedom of navigation operation in the Paracel Islands – known as the Xisha Islands in China – so far this year, and the third targeting Beijing’s “excessive maritime claims” in regional waters during the same period.

Wednesday’s operation by the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold challenged not only China but Vietnam and the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which also claim the islands, as all three governments require military vessels to seek permission or give advance notice of “innocent passage” through the area, Lingo said.

The Paracels are a collection of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They have no indigenous population to speak of, only Chinese military garrisons amounting to 1,400 people, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The islands have been in Chinese hands for nearly 50 years and during that time they’ve been populated with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military installations.

The PLA’s Southern Theater Command said it warned the US destroyer to leave its “territorial waters.”

“The actions of the US military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms of international relations,” PLA Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.

But Lingo, the US 7th Fleet spokesperson, said the sailing of the US destroyer “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea r