In an unusual move, the US has not raised any objection over China's recent military exercise in the disputed South China Sea. Instead it said Beijing has the right to sail in the hotly contested international waterway, which is not meant only for whales and icebergs.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday (27 December) that Washington recognises the rights, freedom and lawful uses of the sea, and that those rules apply to the US, China as well as other nations.

He said, "as we often make the case with our own naval vessels sailing ... in those same waters, it's freedom of navigation. If they are in international waters, they have the right to sail there. And so this – if it holds true for the United States, it should hold true for China, it should hold true for other countries as well.

China has long accused the US warships of making provocative passes through the mineral-rich waterway.

"Freedom of navigation is not just for whales and icebergs," Toner added.

China's first aircraft carrier, a Soviet-built Liaoning, along with five warships sailed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan, the self-governing island's defence ministry said. While Taipei warned of growing threat from the communist country, Beijing defended its drill as a routine training exercise.

China, which claims much of the South China Sea, said it was sailing towards Hainan and did not move deeper into the disputed islands near the Spratly. But Taiwan said the warship skirted outside its air defence identification zone to the east and south passing between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and through the Bashi Channel, and then headed to Hainan, which is home to a large Chinese naval base.

After its drill, the aircraft carrier is reported to have arrived at Hainan naval base on Wednesday (28 December), a senior Taiwanese military officer said.

"The Liaoning aircraft carrier has reached the Hainan military base. We will continue to monitor its developments," a senior Taiwanese military official, who didn't want to be named, told Reuters.

China had been testing the coordination of Liaoning, which Beijing said is 'combat-ready' to fight the enemies, with other military equipment, the official said. He added that docking at Hainan may not be the end of Beijing's mission.

The carrier is believed to make its final stop at its home base at the northeastern port city of Qingdao, China's state media reported.