Japan scrambles fighters as Chinese bombers transit Tsushima Strait for first time since August

by

Staff Writer

Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets were scrambled Monday after a number of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force bombers and reconnaissance planes were detected flying over the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff Office in Tokyo said.

The Chinese planes, including six H-6 bombers, one Y-8 early warning aircraft and one Y-9 surveillance plane, flew via the Tsushima Strait from the East China Sea into the Sea of Japan and back. They did not enter Japanese airspace. The flight was the first over the Tsushima Strait since August.

Late Monday, Chinese state-run media criticized Japan for drawing public attention to the operation.

It was “normal routine training, and Japan panicked and overreacted, which shows Japan may have wanted to hype the event and act as a troublemaker,” The Global Times newspaper quoted Fu Qianshao, a Beijing-based air defense expert, as saying.

The encounter was the latest in an increasingly familiar sequence that has seen ASDF fighters scrambled to intercept Chinese aircraft flying near Japanese airspace, part of what Beijing has termed “regular” drills.

On Dec. 25, China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by three guided-missile destroyers and two frigates, raised alarm bells in Tokyo after it was spotted cruising into the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time via the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island.

Just two weeks prior to that, Japan and China clashed over claims by Beijing that ASDF fighters had engaged in “dangerous and unprofessional” behavior when they were scrambled in response to Chinese aircraft flying the same route between Miyako and Okinawa Island.

China’s Defense Ministry slammed that ASDF scramble, saying the Japanese jets had harassed the Chinese planes and shot decoy projectiles at them.

Tokyo denied the claims and issued a strong protest with Beijing, adding that it would keep a steady eye on the “expanding and increasing” actions of the Chinese military in the area.

China has accused Japan of similar provocations — including radar lock-ons of military aircraft — amid a record spike recently in scrambles by the ASDF as the dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea continues to boil between the two Asian giants. This has prompted concern over prospects of an accidental clash near the tiny islets, which are known as the Diaoyu in China.

While talks to establish a maritime and air communications protocol intended to prevent accidental clashes between aircraft and vessels have been ongoing between the two sides, implementation of the mechanism has been stalled since Japan effectively nationalized the Senkakus in 2012.

In the meantime, Beijing’s forays into the Western Pacific and East China Sea are expected to continue.

China’s 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.

Experts say the extensive chains of Pacific islands that ring in China are seen by some in Beijing as a natural barrier that contains China and its navy. But other Chinese military theorists reportedly view the island chains more as benchmarks or springboards for Chinese military operations.