Beijing sent a warship, fighter jets and a helicopter to chase off a US Navy destroyer after it sailed past disputed islands in the South China Sea, it has emerged.

Chinese military chiefs said the USS Chafee had infringed on the country's sovereignty and security with its "provocation" as it neared the Paracel Islands.

America's operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, according to Daily Mail.

China, angered by the mission, responded immediately on Tuesday by dispatching its own navy and air force to warn the US ship to leave, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

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It comes as President Donald Trump's administration seeks Chinese cooperation in reining in North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.

Hua said: "The US vessel action violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, undermined China's sovereignty and security interests.

"China is firmly opposed to that and has lodged stern representations with the US,' Hua added, using the term for official diplomatic protests.

China's defence ministry warned it would now further strengthen its naval and air defenses.

If confirmed by the United States, it would be the fourth "freedom of navigation" operation (FONOP) carried out by the US Navy since President Donald Trump took office in January.

A US defence ministry spokesman refused to confirm the manoeuvre.

But he said all operations are conducted in accordance with international law and "demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows".

"We are continuing regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future," Lieutenant Colonel Chris Logan said in a statement.

The US Navy regularly carries out such operations to challenge China's vast claims to the South China Sea, where Beijing has turned reefs into militarised artificial islands.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim territory in the vast sea.

However, Hua said: "The Chinese government will continue to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime entitlements. We urge the US to respect Chinese sovereignty and security interests."

The latest US sail-past was not as provocative as previous ones carried out since Trump took office in January.

Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out normal maneuvering operations among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbours.

Next month, Trump makes his first visit to Asia as president, including a stop in China, which he has been pressuring to do more to rein in North Korea. China is North Korea's neighbour and biggest trading partner.

Unlike in August, when a U.S. Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, officials said the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to but not within that range of the islands.

Twelve nautical miles mark internationally recognised territorial limits. Sailing within that range is meant to show the United States does not recognise territorial claims.