China’s air force said Thursday its planes flew over the Miyako Strait, near Okinawa Island, to the Western Pacific Ocean for training for the first time, amid heightened Asian maritime tensions.
It said the one-day training, aimed at improving aircraft maneuverability above the open sea, was completed successfully.
The announcement comes as China and the United States, which is trying to maintain its dominant security role in the region, remain apart over how to ease territorial tensions in the East and South China seas.
The Defense Ministry said it scrambled fighter jets against two Chinese H-6 bombers that flew across the East China Sea and through airspace over the Miyako Strait to the Western Pacific Ocean and back.
The Chinese air force said the training was conducted in line with international law and norms, and did not target any specific country.
The strait between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island is strategically important for China as it is one of the few international waterways for its navy to access the Pacific Ocean.
It is also located close to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands claimed by China in the East China Sea.
China’s naval aircraft had previously been spotted in international airspace above the strait while flying to the Western Pacific Ocean, something the Defense Ministry says has been happening more frequently since December.
Japan scrambled fighter jets 464 times against Chinese aircraft in fiscal 2014, which ended on March 31, up 49 times from a year earlier, the ministry said last month, but adding that none of the planes violated its airspace.
Amid China’s military rise, Japan is stepping up its defense capabilities, especially around Okinaw,a where the bulk of U.S. forces in the country are stationed under a long-standing security pact between Tokyo and Washington.
As part of such efforts, Japan is seeking to deploy a Ground Self-Defense Force unit, consisting of up to 800 troops and equipped with surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles, on Miyako Island.