According to news sources, Japan and South Korea both deployed fighter jets to intercept Chinese military aircraft flying close to each nation’s respective airspace on Monday.

Japanese and South Korean officials have both reported as many as eight Chinese jets flying over the Tsushima Strait between the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, but none of the Chinese aircraft violated either nation’s airspace.  The Chinese planes included six H-6 bombers, early warning craft and at least one intelligence gathering airplane.  According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, the ten planes flew above a submerged island off the southern coast of Jeju island multiple times, an area that is in both South Korea and China’s air defense identification zone.

South Korea responded by fielding ten F-15 and F-16 fighter jets into the vicinity of the Chinese bombers and assorted aircraft where they sent warning signals to the Chinese.  Japan also scrambled fighters to intercept a force of eight Chinese aircraft, believed to be part of the same Chinese air operation, as they flew northeast over the Sea of Japan and later made a U-turn to fly back toward the East China Sea.

The Japanese Defense Ministry has stated that they are analyzing the flights made by the Chinese craft in an effort to ascertain their intentions.  In January and August of last year, Chinese planes were seen flying repeatedly over the same region.

“It’s rare for China to dispatch so many advanced bombers at the same time,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said. “It signals that China will not only step up its presence in the Western Pacific, but also in the Sea of Japan and other waters it has interests in.”

China’s PLA Navy spokesman Liang Yang released a statement indicating that the flight was a routine training operation, with no specific nation targeted by the flight.  According to the official Chinese statement, the mission was intended as coordination training for the varied aircraft deployed by China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Beijing air defense expert Fu Qianshao was quoted by The Global Times, a controversial Chinese newspaper, as saying that the flights were “normal routine training, and ­Japan panicked and overreacted, which shows Japan may have wanted to hype the event and act as a troublemaker”.

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This large aerial operation comes on the heels of China deploying its first ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into the hotly contested South China Sea for trials.  The Russian-built vessel will offer China a dramatically increased force projection platform, permitting them to conduct air and sea operations much further away from China’s shores than ever before – prompting a fair bit of concern from regional neighbors such as the aforementioned Japan and South Korea, as well as ally to both of those nations, the United States.

“The Liaoning aircraft carrier group in the South China Sea is carrying out scientific research and training, in accordance with plans,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said to reporters on January 4th.   “The purpose is to test the performance of weapons and equipment.”

Tensions have been high in the region as a result of China’s expanding claim over the waterways dividing these Asian nations, as well as their militarization of man-made islands as a means to defend those claims.  President Elect Donald Trump’s decision to take a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has also earned Chinese ire, as China claims ownership of Taiwan.  President Tsai Ing-wen won the presidency on a platform that China feels leaned toward formal independence from Beijing.

As China continues to increase military spending, other Asian nations have followed suit, prompting concerns about an arms race within the region.  China’s recent unveiling of their F-22 knock off, the J-20, in conjunction with the deployment of their first aircraft carrier mark significant progress in the nation’s military capabilities.  Currently, the J-20 fighter cannot be deployed from China’s aircraft carrier, but plans are already in motion for China to field its own version of the F-35, dubbed the J-31, which could see carrier based deployment using its vertical takeoff capabilities.

 

Image courtesy of Reuters