South China Sea tensions
A Chinese navy ship is seen docked after an exercise in this file photoPring Samrang/Reuters

A large Chinese naval fleet comprising advanced warships, which are equipped with helicopters, is heading to disputed regions in the South China Sea for key manoeuvres. Beijing's latest show of force is thought to be aimed at countering the US's recent activities in the region.

Three vessels – missile destroyer Hefei, missile frigate Sanya and supply ship Honghu – have already left the naval port in Hainan province to participate in the drills. The ships will soon be joined by two other missile destroyers Lanzhou and Guangzhou, and missile frigate Yulin.

Beijing says the drills are routine exercises intended to bolster the defence capabilities and combat readiness of the Chinese forces. Dozens of "special warfare" troops are also taking part in the exercises, which will also touch the east Indian Ocean and the west Pacific.

China has been locking horns with multiple nations over territorial claims on South China Sea islands. Though China unilaterally claims almost the entire energy-rich waters, several other nations including the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have overlapping claims. Nearly one-third of the world's oil trade passes through the region.

"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. It a demonstration of muscle," Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military commentator, told the South China Morning Post.

The US has recently stepped up its military patrols in the region sparking frequent condemnations from Beijing. Both US ships and aerial forces have engaged in surveillance activities under the so-called freedom of navigational operations in international waters in the recent past, angering Beijing.