The Air Self-Defense Force scrambled aircraft in response to a flight by Chinese fighters and bombers through a key entryway into the Pacific Ocean between Okinawa and Miyako Island, the Defense Ministry said.
Two Chinese fighters and bombers, as well as two other surveillance planes, flew through the Miyako Strait on Friday. The flight, which did not infringe on Japanese territorial airspace, was legal but went through a politically sensitive area.
It was the second such flight since September, when Beijing dispatched at least eight fighters and bombers through the area — apparently to send a message to Tokyo.
Friday’s flight involved two H-6 bombers and two intelligence-gathering aircraft that flew northwest over the Pacific Ocean toward the East China Sea, passing through the strait south of Okinawa. The two Su-30 fighters entered the passageway from the opposite direction, making U-turns to link up with the four other aircraft before flying to the East China Sea, the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff Office said in a news release.
The move came the same day China and Japan held the sixth round of talks on a stalled maritime and air communication protocol intended to prevent accidental clashes between aircraft and vessels. Implementation of the mechanism has been stalled since Japan effectively nationalized the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2012.
Beijing and Tokyo have blasted each other this year over a number of incidents in the air and sea as tensions continue to boil. This has prompted concern over the prospect of an accidental clash by the two Asian giants.
In the first half of fiscal 2016, the ASDF scrambled fighter jets against Chinese aircraft approaching Japanese airspace a record 407 times, the Defense Ministry said on Oct. 14.
According to the ministry, ASDF fighters were scrambled against foreign military planes 594 times between April 1 and Sept. 30, up 251 times from the same period last year.
China accounted for nearly 70 percent of the incidents. There were no occasions in which a foreign military plane entered Japanese airspace.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced in mid-September that it would be organizing “regular” exercises that fly past the so-called first island chain — a strategically important entryway into the western Pacific that includes Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.
The air force said it would focus on improving the quality of such drills, “flying over island chains, controlling the East China Sea and cruising the South China Sea.”
China and Japan are involved in a territorial dispute over the Senkakus. Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in 2013, and its coast guard vessels frequently face off around the Japan-administered islands, which are claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan.
Experts say the extensive chains of Pacific islands that ring China are seen by some in Beijing as a barrier designed during World War II by the United States to contain China and its navy. Still, other Chinese military theorists reportedly view the island chains more as benchmarks or springboards for Chinese military operations.