National / Politics

Japan scrambles jets as China warplanes fly through Okinawa strait

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Air Self-Defense Force scrambled aircraft on Sunday as at least eight Chinese fighters and bombers — and possibly more than 40 — passed through a critical international entryway into the Western Pacific.

They used a legal but politically sensitive passage through Okinawa, apparently to send a message to Tokyo.

It was the first time Beijing is known to have sent fighter jets through the area, and comes days after Japan’s defense minister announced plans to step up engagement in the disputed South China Sea.

The Chinese aircraft, which also included refueling tankers, flew over the Miyako Strait in Okinawa Prefecture but did not infringe Japanese airspace, the Defense Ministry said in Tokyo.

China said more than 40 aircraft were involved. They flew between Miyako Island near Taiwan and Okinawa’s main island on the way to “regular” patrols and drills in the Western Pacific, the Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement posted to its website.

People’s Liberation Army Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke said the massive show of force, which included H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighters and tanker aircraft, conducted reconnaissance and early warning exercises, attacks on sea surface targets, and in-flight refueling “to test the air force’s fighting capacity on the high seas.”

Chinese bombers and fighters also conducted what Shen called a “regular patrol” in the East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that China unilaterally declared in 2013.

“The regular Western Pacific drills and ADIZ patrols are necessary to safeguard national sovereignty, the country’s security and maintain peaceful development,” Shen said.

The air force will continue patrolling the East China Sea ADIZ and conduct training to improve its combat capacity in order to “uphold the legitimate rights and interests of China,” Shen added.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, told a news conference Monday that although the aircraft never violated Japanese airspace, Tokyo “will continue to devote every effort to vigilance and surveillance and rigorously enforce steps against intrusions into our airspace based on international law and the Self-Defense Forces law.”

While it was apparently the first time for Beijing to send fighter jets on the route, its air force first flew other types of jets over the strait in May 2015, China’s Defense Ministry said.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada angered Beijing with a speech last week, in which she said Tokyo would “increase its engagement in the South China Sea through … Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy.”

There was a fiery reaction in Chinese state media, but experts said she had not broken new ground in Japan’s approach to the South China Sea.

Still, according to University of Miami political science professor June Teufel Dreyer, the Chinese flights were meant to send a message to Japan not to meddle in the South China Sea issue.

This “is a response to what Beijing will allege is a provocation by Japan in joining the U.S. in South China Sea drills despite Beijing warning Tokyo against participating,” said Dreyer, who has also served as a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Japan is not a claimant to any area of the South China Sea, where Beijing has constructed artificial islands and built military-grade infrastructure. However, a large portion of Japan’s oil and gas supplies also arrive via South China Sea shipping lanes, Dreyer said, lending added credence to Japan’s interest in the area.

Tokyo has vociferously backed the rule of law in settling territorial disputes, much to the chagrin of Beijing, including the July ruling by an international arbitral tribunal that dismissed China’s historic claims to much of the South China Sea. It has also been a strong supporter of Washington’s so-called freedom of navigation operations near man-made islets in the waters that the U.S. has accused Beijing of militarizing.

Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said Sunday’s flights were also a “demonstration of both Beijing’s capability and its will.”

China has reiterated this month that its air force will be “regularizing” exercises that fly past the so-called first island chain, which gives it access to the Western Pacific. The isles include Japan’s Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan.

Since March 2015, Chinese military aircraft have reportedly flown beyond the chain five times to drill in the Western Pacific.

In a stark example of China’s growing military prowess in the skies above those waters, the U.S. Defense Department said in its annual report to Congress on China’s military in April that such flights could put U.S. forces on Guam at risk from cruise missiles launched from long-range bombers such as the H-6K.

“We know that China has always intended to break through the island chains and develop its blue water presence,” the Stimson Center’s Sun said. “This is a firm step forward in that direction.”