China's military on Tuesday launched a major air defence exercise along the country's eastern coast bordering the Yellow Sea, in the wake of heightened tensions over China's territorial claims in the region.

State media announced that 12,000 soldiers and officers from China's air defence force would conduct a five-day military exercise in north-eastern Henan and Shandong provinces, which lie across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula.

The exercise was announced by the Jinan Military Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), one of its seven military regions.

Named “Vanguard-2010”, it would be carried out in the two provinces as part of annual exercise aimed at improving communication between different military regions.

The war games would include three simulated attacks and a live-firing exercise, the Associated Press quoted the China News Service as saying. No rehearsals were held for the exercise, it said, with a view to testing real-time responses to any military challenges.

About 100 aircraft, including scouting planes, combat aircraft and helicopters, would take part in the exercise, which would involve air defence missiles and artillery units.

The exercise takes place after a week of heightened tensions in the region, following joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea in the Yellow Sea.

China has voiced strong objections to the military exercises, which were ostensibly directed at North Korea.

In March, the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, which claimed the lives of 46 South Korean sailors, renewed strains in the region. North Korea was blamed for the alleged torpedo attack by the U.S. and the South, though it has denied responsibility. China is the North's only strategic ally.

Tensions over the long-running territorial dispute over the South China Sea, between China and several South-east Asian countries, have also surfaced in recent weeks.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a resolution of the dispute “without coercion” was in the “national interest” of the U.S., a remark seen in China as U.S. interference into its territorial affairs.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry described her remarks as “an attack on China”.

China's territorial claims on the whole of the strategically-significant South China Sea, through which several important shipping routes pass, are disputed by several countries, including Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. China has called for settling the dispute through bilateral talks with different countries.

Some ASEAN countries have, however, voiced support for a multilateral platform to resolve the issue, which China fears would open the door for greater American involvement in the dispute.

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