The Chinese air force has made public for the first time a deployment of advanced fighter jets for a “joint combat patrol” over the disputed South China Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force said in a statement posted late Wednesday to its official microblogging account that it had sent Russian-built Su-35s into the airspace above the strategic waterway, but did not reveal when the patrol took place. The statement included photo and video of the exercises, but did not say how many aircraft participated in the training.

It said the multirole fighter’s participation in so-called combat exercises would help strengthen the air force’s long-range operational capability, the report said, adding that the air force would continue pushing forward training to improve combat capabilities.

Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.

China has stoked concern in the region after building up a series of man-made outposts in the Spratly Island chain, including what experts say are now fully functioning air and naval bases.

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, known for its strident nationalist stance, quoted a retired Chinese major general as saying that the deployment could be in response to a U.S. “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP) last month near the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Beijing blasted Washington for sending a warship “without permission” into what it said was its territorial waters around the shoal, adding that it would take “necessary measures” to “safeguard its sovereignty.” China’s Defense Ministry said this would include intensified patrols in the air and at sea.

“The appearance of advanced PLA fighter jets, capable of attacking surface combat vessels in this region is sort of a reaction to the provocation by the US,” the Global Times quoted Xu Guangyu, a retired major general and senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, as saying.

The U.S. has criticized the Chinese militarization of its South China Sea islands, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted numerous FONOPs in the area in recent years.

Beijing has disputed this claim, saying the militarization of the outposts has been for self-defense purposes.

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