BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese ships on Sunday patrolled the James Shoal, an area also claimed by Malaysia, and soldiers and officers on board swore to safeguard its sovereignty, in the latest sign of Beijing's territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The group was made up of an amphibious landing craft, the Changbaishan, and two destroyers, state news agency Xinhua said.
"During the ceremony held in the Zengmu Reef area, soldiers and officers aboard swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country's sovereignty and maritime interests," Xinhua said. Zengmu Reef is the Chinese term for James Shoal.
Xinhua said the fleet commander Jiang Weilie "urged soldiers and officers to always be prepared to fight, improve combat capabilities and lead the forces to help build the country into a maritime power".
China is in an increasingly angry dispute with its neighbors over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea. China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.
Beijing regards the James Shoal as the southernmost part of the country's territory.
Last March, Malaysia protested against the incursion of four Chinese ships in James Shoal, about 80 km (50 miles) off Sarawak on Borneo island. Chinese sailors fired guns in the air during the visit to the shoal. In April, a Chinese maritime surveillance ship returned to James Shoal to leave behind steel markers to assert its claim.
China upset the Philippines and the United States this month when rules went into force demanding fishing boats seek permission to enter waters under the jurisdiction of China's southern province of Hainan, an area the provincial government says covers much of the South China Sea.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim other parts of the South China Sea. China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ron Popeski)