The ships of the Nanhai Fleet set sail from a military port in south China's Hainan Province for a drill in the South China Sea, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. (Agencies)
The drill, part of annual exercises, includes combat exercises in the West Pacific Ocean and the east Indian Ocean.
The three-ship flotilla consists of an amphibious landing craft and destroyer. It includes Changbaishan, China's largest landing ship by gross tonnage and is equipped with an advanced weapon system, the report said.
Three helicopters and a company of land forces are aboard.
Fleet commander Jiang Weilie said this drill focuses on testing the combat ability of leading ships, submarines and aviation forces while exploring methods for normalised open sea drills.
China claims almost all of South China Sea as its own.
Its claim is strongly contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
These countries along with the US criticised a law brought in by China's Hainan province saying, "foreigners or foreign fishing ships entering sea areas administered by Hainan and engaged in fishery production or fishery resource surveys should receive approval from relevant departments of the State Council."
Critics say new rules, which took effect on January 1, raise questions about China's efforts to exercise jurisdiction over all fishing activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Chinese media today reported anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam over the disputed islands.
The demonstration was held in Hanoi coinciding with the anniversary of a 1974 battle between China and Vietnamese forces in the South China Sea during which China took complete control of the islands called Paracel by Vietnam and Xisha by China.
China argues that the island chain has been a traditional fishing area for Chinese for hundreds of years.
"Vietnam is giving China a tit-for-tat response by reminding the people how long the islands have been 'occupied' by China. The Vietnamese authorities also try to show their people the official attitude towards the issue for fear that Vietnamese people may take a more aggressive approach," Zhuang Guotu, dean of the Research School of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University told state-run Global Times.
But he said Hanoi's approach is relatively mild as it still hopes to keep the issue controllable and avoid the dispute being upgraded, since Vietnam needs to develop through cooperating with China.
The ships of the Nanhai Fleet set sail from a military port in south China's Hainan Province for a drill in the South China Sea, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.