KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's navy chief has denied a report that three Chinese navy ships patrolled an area claimed by the South-east Asian country, saying the Chinese exercise took place hundreds of miles to the north in international waters.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that an amphibious landing craft and two destroyers patrolled the James Shoal on Sunday, 80 km off the coast of Malaysia's Sarawak state, and held a ceremony in which they swore to safeguard Chinese sovereignty.
The reported activity at the southernmost tip of Beijing's sweeping claims over the South China Sea appeared to be the latest sign of its territorial assertiveness that has boosted tensions with claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
Royal Malaysian Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar, in comments published by the New Straits Times on Wednesday, said the Chinese exercise, involving its newly commissioned aircraft carrier and a submarine, took place 1,000 nautical miles away from Malaysia's 200 nautical mile economic exlusion zone.
He said Malaysia and the United States had been informed of the exercises beforehand.
"There has been no act of provocation on the part of the Chinese or threat to our sovereignty as they are conducting their exercise in international waters," the pro-government newspaper quoted him as saying.
China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, completed its first sea trials and returned to port on Jan. 1, according to Xinhua, an apparent contradiction with the Malaysian navy chief's reported comments.
Compared to the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia has taken a low-key approach to its overlapping claims with China, its largest trade partner.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed, during Mr Xi's visit to Malaysia last year, to elevate ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership". The two nations are to hold their first joint military exercises this year.
But there are signs that Malaysia's approach could shift as China presses huge claims in the oil and gas-rich maritime area.
Malaysia protested to China last March against the incursion by four Chinese warships in the James Shoal, which Beijing calls the Zengmu Reef and which lies about 1,800 km south of the Chinese mainland.
In April, a Chinese maritime surveillance ship returned to James Shoal to leave behind steel markers to assert its claim.
Malaysia's defence minister announced in October that the country would establish a marine corps and set up a naval base in the coastal town of Bintulu near the James Shoal.
China upset the Philippines and the United States this month when rules went into force demanding fishing boats seek permission to enter waters under the jurisdiction of China's southern province of Hainan, an area the provincial government says covers much of the South China Sea.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea. China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.