The Chinese navy has begun a comprehensive combat drill in the South China Sea involving its most advanced warships amid rising tensions with the United States over the disputed waters.
A naval group of two destroyers, two frigates, and a supply ship left Sanya, Hainan province, on Wednesday for drills analysts said were aimed at boosting combat readiness. Another destroyer will join them soon.
Each ship is carrying three helicopters and dozens of special forces troops and will sail to the South China Sea, the east Indian Ocean and the west Pacific, according to state-run CCTV.
Tensions in the South China Sea have been rising, with rival claimant the Philippines filing an arbitration case against China in the Hague. A decision on the case, which China said it will not recognize, is due by the end of June at the latest.
The drills involve troops stationed on the Paracel and Spratly islands, and forces of the North Sea Fleet, the report said, describing it as an annual exercise.
One of the destroyers is the Hefei, the navy's newest Type 052D guided-missile destroyer, featuring advanced radar, missiles and a stealth system that entered service in December.
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A third destroyer, Type 052C Lanzhou, will join the group after a joint counterterrorism exercise with Asean and other countries near Brunei and Singapore.
Lanzhou last week had a "friendly encounter" with the strike group of aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, one day after the American ship was denied permission to dock in Hong Kong, the website of the PLA Daily reported.
Other ships include Type 052B destroyer Guangzhou, Type 054A frigates Sanya and Yulin, and the supply ship Honghu.
"China's best warships will be deployed in the South Sea Fleet as a response to the US military activities, although both sides will carefully avoid any friction," Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military commentator, said. "It a demonstration of muscle."
The US has stepped up military deployment in the region. Last month, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter flew to the USS John C. Stennis for a two-hour visit as it sailed 70 miles west of the Philippines island of Luzon.
Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said more drills were likely. "New ships need to be tested in real-sea experience, and a combat group needs to practise command, coordination and teamwork," Xu said.
There was room for speculation China was preparing an aircraft carrier combat group, Xu said, as the ships were a standard combination for escorting a carrier.
The PLA Navy had been practising operations with its first carrier, the Liaoning, and work on the main body of a second carrier was expected to be complete this year, Kanwa Asian Defense reported.