Japan Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera described a flight by two Chinese bombers between southern Japanese islands as “unusual,” two days before the anniversary of the purchase of islands disputed with China.
Japan dispatched fighter planes when the Chinese H-6 bombers flew between the main southern island of Okinawa and Miyakojima about 280 kilometers (174 miles) further southwest on Sunday, without entering Japanese airspace, the Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website. China said the flight was legal and that it would continue such maneuvers.
Japanese and Chinese ships and planes have been tailing one another around small, uninhabited East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China since the Japanese government bought three of them from a private owner on Sept. 11 last year.
Onodera told reporters in Tokyo the flight was out of the ordinary and that Japan must deal carefully with the anniversary of the island purchase, according to Fumio Tokubuchi of the Defense Ministry’s public affairs division.
The ministry said in a separate statement on its website that two Chinese warships were also seen 100 kilometers northeast of Miyakojima at 2 a.m. today, heading from the Pacific to the East China Sea. An unmanned aircraft of unknown origin flew near the disputed East China Sea islands earlier today without violating Japanese airspace, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. He called it “an unusual incident.”
Chinese naval aircraft recently went to the western Pacific for training in a “routine” operation, China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website today. The move wasn’t targeted at any country and was in line with international law, the ministry said.
The dispute over the islands sparked violent demonstrations in China last year, damaging Japanese businesses and trade ties between Asia’s two largest economies. Top-level diplomatic meetings petered out and no formal bilateral summit has been held for more than a year. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke briefly during the Group of 20 summit in Russia last week.
A Chinese military patrol aircraft followed a similar flightpath in July, also spurring Japan to dispatch fighters. In December a Chinese plane entered Japanese-controlled airspace over the disputed islands, prompting Japan to send eight F-15 fighter jets into the area and to lodge what it called an “extremely severe” protest with China.