KUALA LUMPUR Malaysia's navy chief has denied a report that three Chinese navy ships patrolled an area claimed by the Southeast 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, 50 miles 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 exclusion 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 January 1, according to Xinhua, an apparent contradiction with the Malaysian navy chief's reported comments.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dodged a question at a news briefing on any such discrepancy, saying Chinese media had reported on patrols "for many years".
"We hope the media will not go out of its way to report on these routine and ordinary activities," she said.
China's Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A Malaysian government spokesman said the government was investigating the incident.
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 last year to elevate ties and joint military exercises are to be held for the first time this year.
But there are signs that Malaysia's approach could shift. 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 (1,120 miles) 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.
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.
(Reporting By Stuart Grudgings and by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Ron Popeski)