A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near the China-claimed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Saturday in a "freedom of navigation" operation, the 7th Fleet said.

The operation involving the destroyer Hopper near the islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan is aimed at countering the excessive claims of maritime interests.

"This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed" by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, the fleet said in a statement.

The fleet said the three countries' requirement that permission be granted or advance notification given before passage of a military vessel is a violation of international law and argued that ships of all states, including warships, have the right of innocent passage through a territorial sea.

The Chinese military was critical of the United States for sending a warship "illegally" into China's territorial waters, and noted that the Chinese People's Liberation Army's Southern Theater Command organized air and naval forces to follow, monitor and drive the vessel away according to law.

Related coverage:

Philippines, China chase in South China Sea witnessed aboard ship

Australia rips China over "unsafe, unprofessional" naval interaction

U.S. Marines set up littoral unit in Okinawa for islands defense