China will hold naval exercises in the South China Sea on Saturday, its maritime authority said, after a week of recrimination from Western powers over its military ambitions across the Pacific region.
The exercises, set to take place in the sea less than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) off the coast of south China's Hainan province, come as the United States leads warnings over China's growing military and economic presence in an area spanning from the South China Sea to the Pacific Islands, AFP said.
"Military exercises will be held and entry is prohibited," the Maritime Safety administration said in a statement Thursday, warning that an area of roughly 100 square kilometers would be closed off to maritime traffic for five hours.
China routinely conducts similar drills in waters near its shores, with an exercise in another area of the sea near Hainan scheduled for next week, as well as multiple others along the country's eastern coastline.
But the latest exercises come as Beijing faces a growing chorus of warnings from the United States and Western allies over its naval ambitions, which critics say are a beachhead for a wider attempt to change the regional balance of power.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday accused Beijing of raising tensions over Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.
"Beijing has engaged in increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity like flying PLA aircraft near Taiwan on an almost daily basis," Blinken said in a speech, referring to the People's Liberation Army.
He also called for efforts to counterbalance China's "intent to reshape the international order."
Blinken's comments followed verbal sparring between Beijing and Washington over President Joe Biden's promise to defend Taiwan if attacked by China, made on the president's trip to the region earlier this week.
China has in turn vowed to defend its national interests over Taiwan, warning Washington not to "underestimate" Beijing's resolve and capabilities on the issue.
Meanwhile, governments including Australia and New Zealand have sounded the alarm this week over leaked documents that appeared to show a plan to build broad security cooperation between China and the Pacific Islands.
But China has said its cooperation with Pacific Island countries "does not target any country," and rejected claims that it is pressuring small states into security agreements.