Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera expressed concern Friday after China carried out an unprecedented military drill a day earlier that took six of its bombers close to Japanese territory.
The H-6 bombers had flown a route that took them through the Miyako Strait between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea to the skies off Kansai’s Kii Peninsula for the first time, according to the Defense Ministry.
“It was the first time we have recorded Chinese military aircraft flying this route,” Onodera said, according to a transcript of a regular press briefing Friday.
“We expressed our concern through diplomatic channels,” Onodera said, adding that Japan would continue to monitor the situation.
The bombers did not enter Japanese airspace, but the Defense Ministry said late Thursday that it scrambled fighters in response. Tokyo has been unnerved by China’s continued flights near Japanese territory as it seeks to flex its growing military muscle.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said late Thursday in a statement that the “normal” drills accorded with international law and were part of an “ordinary need” to bolster actual combat abilities and strengthen the military.
It said no amount of interference or shadowing — likely a veiled reference to the Japanese scrambles — would prevent the long-range exercises from continuing.
“No matter what obstructions are encountered, the Chinese Air Force will carry on as before; no matter who flies with us, the Chinese Air Force will fly often!” its spokesman Shen Jinke was quoted in the statement as saying.
Beijing is involved in a territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Senkakus, called Diaoyu by China, are also claimed by Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.
The Chinese military last sent ships and planes through international but politically sensitive waters and airspace near Japan in July as part of its continuing push to hone its ability to operate further from its shores.
At the time, the Chinese Defense Ministry said Japan “should not make a fuss about nothing or over-interpret, it will be fine once they get used to it.”
China has spent aggressively on modernizing its military, including on developing aircraft carriers, but has also ramped up its training and exercises. Drills through the Miyako Strait have become more and more commonplace as China seeks to project its military clout farther into the Pacific.
Beijing has blasted Tokyo for hyping the exercises, calling them part of “regular” drills, while Japan has said it will keep a vigilant eye on the “expanding and increasing” actions of the Chinese military in the area.
According to data released by Japan’s Defense Ministry in April, the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese aircraft 101 times from April to June, down from 199 last year.
The plunge came after the ASDF scrambled fighters against Chinese planes a record-high 1,168 times in fiscal 2016, which ended in March.