On the surface, this seems good:
The U.S. action was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, U.S. officials said.
The Chinese Defense Ministry called the move "illegal" and "provocative," saying that two Chinese warships had warned the U.S. destroyer to leave.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur challenged "excessive maritime claims" near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The latest U.S. patrol, first reported by Reuters, is expected to anger Beijing and could further escalate tensions over the South China Sea. The destroyer sailed within waters claimed by China, close to but not within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits of the islands, the officials said.
The Pentagon said the Decatur "conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident." One official said the ship, which sailed near Triton and Woody Islands, was shadowed by three Chinese vessels and that all interactions were safe.
The article says it was a freedom of navigation operation, but I've yet to read any confirmation for this or other missions to indicate that it is indeed a freedom of navigation operation.
We say we conducted a transit in a lawful matter. Which can mean a warship going through territorial waters as long as the warship keeps all its weapons and related gear "off" so as not to be a threat. I believe that is called "innocent passage" (I'm basically a ground guy and going on memory).
The Russians, I am sure, are conducting innocent passage through the English Channel rather than challenging British or French control of territorial waters in that body of water:
Royal Navy destroyers have been sent to 'man-mark' Russian warships that are on course to pass through the English Channel, reportedly heading towards Syria to support the final assault on Aleppo.
Sailing through territorial waters is not in itself a challenge to sovereignty. The Russians are simply passing through on the way to somewhere else. There is no message on legality being sent.
So until I read that an American warship is sailing withing 12 nautical miles of a Chinese outpost while operating weapons (in training, of course), I'm not going to sit here and say we are conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
This might be provocation theater, in which we pretend to challenge Chinese sovereignty and the Chinese pretend to be outraged at our presence.