Five Chinese naval ships, including a guided-missile destroyer, were spotted Friday morning near the Chunxiao gas field in the East China Sea, where Japan and China have a dispute over demarcation, the Maritime Self-Defense Force said.

An MSDF P-3C patrol plane spotted the five vessels around 9 a.m. about 290 km northwest of Kume Island, Okinawa Prefecture.

It is the first time Japan has spotted Chinese warships near the gas field, although its research ships have often been sighted in those waters, the MSDF said. The ships’ mission was unknown.

The group consisted of a 7,940-ton Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyer, two 1,702-ton Jianghu I-class guided-missile frigates, a 23,000-ton replenishment vessel and a 6,000-ton missile observation support ship, according to the MSDF.

The ships’ sighting comes amid rising bilateral tensions after a Chinese consortium said last month it could begin drilling for natural gas in the field as early as this month despite Japan’s calls not to do so.

“We perceive it to be an intentional act, not a chance occurrence,” a senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry reckoned, adding that the matter would be brought up the next time the two nations hold working-level talks on the drilling issue.

Tokyo has called on Beijing to temporarily suspend its gas exploration projects under way in the East China Sea and disclose more information about them.

Japan maintains that the Chunxiao gas field rigs, which are just on China’s side of a median line Tokyo claims divides the two nation’s exclusive economic zones, are attempting to tap into a field that stretches into Japanese territory.

Tokyo has granted Teikoku Oil Co. rights to tap on Japan’s side of the line, which Beijing does not recognize. China claims its EEZ extends almost up to Okinawa to the edge of the continental shelf, encompassing Taiwan.

There are two other Chinese gas rigs in the area.

The Chinese navy has become increasingly active in the East China Sea in recent years.

Last November, a submerged Chinese nuclear sub was tracked in Japanese waters near Okinawa. In May 1999, Japan spotted 13 Chinese naval ships near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are called Diaoyu by China, Tiaoyutai in Taiwan and claimed by all three parties.

In November 2002, two vessels were found near the main island of Okinawa.

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