A US warship that entered waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea was followed and warned away by Chinese forces, the country's military claimed on Thursday, in the latest flare-up in tensions in the disputed waterway.

The People's Liberation Army's Southern Theatre Command said the USS Benfold "illegally" entered Chinese territorial waters without permission, violating the country's sovereignty, and that Chinese navy and air forces tracked the ship.

"We solemnly demand that the US side ceases such provocative activities immediately, failing which it will bear the serious repercussions of unforeseen events," it said.

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The Benfold "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of Paracel Island, consistent with international law," according to the US Navy.

"At the end of the operation, the USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea," stated 7th Fleet spokesman Mark Langford.

The US frequently conducts so-called freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea to contest Chinese territorial claims. China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the sea, which are intersected by critical shipping channels and include gas deposits and rich fishing grounds.

The South China Sea has become one of several flashpoints in China's testy relationship with the US, with Washington rejecting Beijing's "unlawful" territorial claims. Large parts of the South China Sea are claimed by China. Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all have claims that overlap.