China's Defense Ministry appeared Thursday to confirm a test of an intercontinental missile.

A three-sentence statement posted on the ministry's website posed the question of whether China had fired an ICBM in the area of the disputed South China Sea, which is claimed almost entirely by China.

In its response, the ministry said China maintains that "technological research experiments conducted according to plan within China's boundaries are normal and are not aimed at any specific nations or targets." Media reports about the location of the test were "purely speculation," it said.

The statement follows a report in the U.S. newspaper Washington Free Beacon that quoted unidentified Pentagon officials as saying China tested its longest-range DF-41 missile with two multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on Tuesday. The report did not say where the test took place, but referenced recent tensions between China and the U.S. over Beijing's actions to shore up its claims to the South China Sea.

Chinese Defense and Foreign Ministry spokesmen sometimes respond to outside reports on China's activities in vague or abstract terms as a way of affirming their essential correctness without confirming any of the facts contained within.

However, the Free Beacon report was not widely distributed in China, strengthening the impression that the ministry wished to make public its latest missile test.

Chinese military analyst Ni Lexiong said the ministry appeared to be seeking to advertise China's capabilities and boldness while leaving room for speculation about its actions and intentions.

That approach aims to show that China is "prepared for conflicts and even combat, though unwilling to see it actually happen," said Ni, who teaches at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.