Malaysia's navy chief has denied a Xinhua report that three Chinese navy ships patrolled an area claimed by the Southeast Asian country, saying the Chinese exercise took place hundreds of kilometres to the north in international waters.
Xinhua had reported that an amphibious landing craft and two destroyers patrolled the James Shoal on Sunday, 80 kilometres 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 heightened tensions with claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
But Royal Malaysian Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar, in comments published by the New Straits Times, said the Chinese exercise, involving its newly commissioned aircraft carrier the Liaoning 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," he was quoted as saying.
Compared to the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia has taken a low-key approach to its overlapping claims with China, its largest trade partner.
President Xi Jinping and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed, during 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 1,800 kilometres 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.