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US Navy warships sail near South China Sea islands

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Higgins (File photo)

Two US Navy warships have sailed near South China Sea islands, which are claimed by China, according to two US officials.

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

The islands are among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighboring countries.

The move is likely to anger Beijing as President Donald Trump is trying to maintain its continued cooperation on North Korea.

The military vessels conducted maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, according to one of the officials.

China has repeatedly warned the United States against sending warships to patrol the South China Sea. Washington claims such operations are meant to protect “freedom of navigation” in the sea, a gateway for trillions of dollars in maritime trade each year.

China’s island-building in the South China Sea has also drawn criticism from the US, which accuses Beijing of undertaking a land reclamation program to build artificial islands, which could be used as military bases.

However, Beijing, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has denied the allegations and says any military activities on the islands have been for self-defense purposes.

Washington's military presence in the region, halfway around the world, has also led to worries about an increasing risk of accidental collisions that could spark a consequential wider conflict.

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