BEIJING — China and Russia on Sunday launched their first joint naval exercises amid tensions between China and its Asian neighbours over regional territorial claims.
The six days of drills are taking place in the Yellow Sea off China's east coast, the official China News Service said, adding these were the first dedicated exercises involving the two navies.
Taking place near Qingdao city off the coast of Shandong province, they were launched by Russian and Chinese military officials on Sunday morning, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.
The exercises come as China boosts military spending and asserts claims over disputed territory, including a chain of islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan.
China and several Asian countries also have rival claims to uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade.
The exercises will focus on joint air defence, anti-submarine tactics and search and rescue, Xinhua has previously said. They will also include simulated rescue of hijacked vessels and anti-terrorism drills.
China has 16 naval vessels and two submarines taking part while Russia has four warships.
China said Thursday that the exercises were aimed at upholding regional peace.
"This joint military exercise is a long scheduled one between China and Russia in order to uphold regional peace and stability," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular news briefing.
China and Russia have together participated in four military exercises since 2005, some involving other countries as well, Xinhua has said.
The two countries previously held joint war games in 2005 but these are the first dedicated naval exercises, a Chinese expert said.
Yin Zhuo, an expert who advises the navy, said the number of ships involved was unprecedented.
"Both sides will have deep exchanges in terms of tactics and technology," Yin told state television.
But the exercises could worry China's Asian neighbours.
Beijing and Tokyo have a long-running dispute over a chain of islands, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan -- which sit in rich fishing grounds that may harbour lucrative energy resources.
Japan has so far shown little interest in the drills, which are taking place more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) north of the disputed islands.
But Japan's defence ministry said in a recent report that China was becoming increasingly active in waters near Japanese territory while Russia was holding more frequent military exercises in its far east region.
It another flare-up which erupted earlier this month, China and the Philippines dispatched vessels as they lay claim to a group of islands in the South China Sea.