WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. is considering deploying aircraft and ships to contest Chinese claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Options are on the table to fly surveillance aircraft and sail Navy ships nearby in a move that puts the U.S. directly into a contentious territorial contest in East Asia, in which, until now, the U.S. has avoided overtly taking sides.
The South China Sea is the subject of numerous rival -- often messy -- territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters.
China on Wednesday cautioned the U.S. against taking any actions that might be considered provocative, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua news service.
While Beijing supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the U.S. must be careful in how it uses that right, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in the report.
"Freedom of navigation does not give one country's military aircraft and ships free access to another country's territorial waters and airspace," Hua is quoted as saying in the Xinhua report.
A U.S. Navy statement Wednesday said the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth arrived for resupply in the Philippines after completing a weeklong patrol in the South China Sea that took it near the disputed Spratly Islands.
The Navy said it was the first time an LCS, one of the newest vessels in the U.S. fleet, had operated in international waters near the islands. The Spratlys have been claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, according to the U.S. State Department.
"As part of our strategic rebalance to bring our newest and most capable Navy platforms to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, (the LCSs have) a regular presence in Southeast Asia. Routine operations like the one Fort Worth just completed in the South China Sea will be the new normal as we welcome four LCSs to the region in the coming years," Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore of the Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7, said in the Navy release.
The Navy said the Fort Worth came across "multiple" Chinese warships during its patrol. A photo released by the Navy showed the Fort Worth being trailed by a Chinese guided-missile frigate, the Yancheng.
"Our interactions with Chinese ships continue to be professional," the commander of the Fort Worth, Cmdr. Matt Kawas, said in the statement.
Kawas said his vessel followed the international Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to "clarify intentions and prevent miscommunication" with the Chinese ships.
Tensions over the Spratlys have increased in recent months as China has built facilities on five reclaimed-land sites in the islands, including a 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) airstrip.
James Hardy, editor of Jane's Asia Pacific, told CNN in February that China was executing "a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain."
The disputed areas in the islands include fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources.