National

Chinese military planes fly near Okinawa Island during drill

Kyodo

China’s air force said Friday its planes had again flown over the Miyako Strait, near Okinawa Island, as part of a drill in the western Pacific Ocean.

The move comes as China’s military ramps up its combat capability amid growing maritime tensions in the region.

The drill took place a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a major overhaul of the country’s military to make the world’s largest army more combat ready and better equipped to project force beyond the country’s borders.

“The air force has conducted drills four times this year in the western Pacific Ocean and it has improved its long-distance operational capability at sea,” read a statement on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s official microblog.

It said it also carried out a patrol Friday in China’s air identification zone in the East China Sea, adding that H-6K bombers, jets and other aircraft participated in the two operations.

The statement added that the operations were in line with international law and norms.

The strait between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island is strategically vital for China as it is one of the few international waterways through which its navy can access the Pacific Ocean.

It is also located close to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China.

As China’s tensions with other Asian countries over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas persist, the 2.3 million-member PLA, which has traditionally centered its resources on ground forces, is seeking to strengthen its navy.

China’s tensions with the United States, which is trying to maintain its dominant security role in the region, also remains high.

In November 2013, China abruptly declared an air defense identification zone over a large swath of the East China Sea where the Senkaku Islands are located.

Amid China’s increasing military assertiveness, Japan is stepping up its defense capability, especially around Okinawa, where the bulk of U.S. forces in the country are based under a long-standing security pact between Tokyo and Washington.

Japan said last month its air force scrambled fighter jets 231 times against Chinese aircraft in the first half of fiscal 2015 starting in April, a record high for the six-month period.