The Defense Ministry in Tokyo confirmed Saturday that for the first time China has conducted a drill in the Pacific with its sole operating aircraft carrier.
The ministry said it had detected several apparent fighter jets being launched from the Liaoning, which was sailing eastward with six other Chinese Navy vessels some 350 km (over 200 miles) south of Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni, in Okinawa Prefecture, on Friday morning.
On Saturday, the carrier and its escorts passed through the Miyako Strait between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa, venturing northwest toward the East China Sea.
The Chinese government had earlier notified vessels in the area of plans to conduct the drill, it said.
The operations by the Chinese Navy came after the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighters for three straight days in response to bombers and other aircraft flying in waters near Okinawa Prefecture.
On Friday, two Chinese H-6 heavy bombers flew through the Miyako Strait, while it sent a total of six aircraft, including fighter jets, through the strategic entryway into the Pacific on Thursday. The ASDF also scrambled fighters in response to a sighting of a Chinese Navy drone north of the Miyako Strait on Wednesday.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said earlier this month that Chinese military aircraft had flown through the Miyako Strait a record 36 times in fiscal 2017, as China seeks to extend its reach further into the Western Pacific with what it calls “regular” exercises.
The Chinese Air Force also conducted exercises over the Miyako Strait in late March, labeling the drills “rehearsals for future wars.”
Tokyo and Beijing are embroiled in a dispute over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.
China is in the midst of a military modernization program heavily promoted by President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a shift in focus toward creating a more potent fighting force, including projects such as building a second aircraft carrier, integrating stealth fighters into its air force and fielding an array of advanced missiles that can strike air and sea targets from long distances.
Earlier this month, the Liaoning participated in a massive naval fleet review — the country’s largest since 1949 — in the South China Sea.
More than 10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels and 76 aircraft took part in the review, including high-tech submarines and warships as well as advanced fighter jets. More than half of the vessels were commissioned after the Communist Party’s National Congress in 2012, when Xi became the party’s general secretary.