BEIJING (Reuters) - China's latest drill in the South China Sea was a normal search and rescue exercise, the defense ministry said on Thursday, less than a week after a U.S. navy destroyer sailed near the Paracel Islands, provoking a warning from Chinese warships to leave.

China routinely holds drills in the busy waterway, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims.

The search and rescue exercises were being conducted off the coast of the island province of Hainan and were regular drills forming part of annual plans, a defense ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, told a monthly news briefing, but gave no further details.

China's maritime safety administration said the exercises would run all day on Thursday, and ordered all other shipping to keep away.


The maritime administration has given coordinates for an area south of Hainan and northwest of the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, but controlled by China.

China has a runway on Woody Island, its largest presence on the Paracels, and has placed surface-to-air missiles there, according to U.S. officials.

Beijing's claim in the South China Sea is the largest of all the claimants. It argues it can do what it wants on the islands it claims as they have been Chinese since ancient times.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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