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Chinese Military Aircraft Push Into The Western Pacific, Startling Biggest Rival

REUTERS/Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/Handout via Reuters

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

Alarms went off in Japan after a massive fleet of Chinese fighters and bombers flew past Okinawa and into the Western Pacific Sunday.

After eight Chinese aircraft crossed over the Miyako Strait, which runs between Okinawa and Miyako Island, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force scrambled its fighters, according The Japan Times. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) reportedly sent a total of 40 aircraft, including H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighters, through the strait, reports the Xinhua News Agency.

PLAAF planes conducted reconnaissance and early warning drills, practiced striking surface targets at sea, and in-flight refueling, China’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The exercises were parts of a “routine drill” on the high seas, according to PLAAF spokesman Shen Jinke. The aim was “to test the Air Force’s fighting capacity on the high seas.”

While passage through the Miyako Strait is legal, proximity to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, territories administered by Japan but claimed by China, and Okinawa made the drills alarming. Furthermore, the size of the fleet was unprecedented. The PLA flew a few military aircraft through the Miyako Strait last May; however, Sunday’s group was significantly larger. This is also reportedly the first time China has sent fighter jets through the strait.

The Japanese Defense Ministry said that the Chinese aircraft did not enter Japanese airspace. Nonetheless, the huge show of force and the location of the display was likely intended as a message to Tokyo, which has promised to step up its involvement in the South China Sea, much to the aggravation of the Chinese government.

“It is a warning from Beijing to Japan: if you are coming to meddle in the South China Sea, then I’m going to flex my muscles at your doorstep,” military analyst ­Antony Wong Dong told the South China Morning Post.

During the drills, China’s air force units also carried out a patrol of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) it unilaterally established over disputed waters in 2013. The patrol was conducted “in accordance with the needs of the Air Force to defend national sovereignty and security,” Shen explained. “The Air Force will continue patrolling in the East China Sea ADIZ to uphold the legitimate rights and interests of China,” explained the Chinese Ministry of Defense.

The PLAAF conducted two drills in the Western Pacific this month. China sent bombers and fighters through the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines, earlier this month.

China conducted six drills since March, 2015, beyond the first island chain, three through the Bashi Channel and three through the Miyako Strait, signaling a noticeable Chinese interest in projecting power deeper into the Western Pacific. “China is eager to show that it is capable of breaking the first island chain, which is a threat to it both psychologically and physically,” Wong told the SCMP.

While the PLAAF fighters and bombers did not infringe upon Japan’s airspace, it has caused concern in Tokyo. Japan “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,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during a press conference Monday.

In response to regular Chinese naval and air force incursions into disputed areas, Japan is preparing to upgrade its missile defense system to include surface-to-sea and surface-to-air missiles on and around Miyako Island.

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