Washington on Tuesday called a third U.S. Navy maneuver in a disputed part of the South China Sea a robust stand on freedom of navigation. However, the fleeting sail-by fits an approach that some critics have called "minimalist" — one that could strengthen Beijing's claims.

The USS William P. Lawrence guided-missile destroyer "exercised the right of innocent passage" while transiting within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Fiery Cross Reef, a Chinese man-made islet that is claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told The Japan Times in an emailed statement late Tuesday.

"This operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim, specifically that these three claimants purport to require prior permission or notification of transits through the territorial sea, contrary to international law," Urban said.