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Watching closely: Japan responds to China’s large-scale fighter jet flight near Okinawa

Japan will remain vigilant and “watch closely” the movements of China’s military after Chinese fighter jets flew over a strait separating islands in Okinawa Prefecture on Sunday, according to the government’s top spokesman.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference Monday that although the aircraft never violated Japan’s airspace, Tokyo “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-Defence Forces law.”

Japan scrambled fighters from its Air Self-Defence Force in response to the flight of eight Chinese aircraft, believed to include two fighters, in international airspace over the more than 250 kilometre-wide strait between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island on Sunday morning.

According to the Japanese Defence Ministry, it was the first passage through the strait by Chinese fighters, although Chinese military spy planes had flown over the area in the past.

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China media quoted the Chinese air force Sunday as saying about 40 of its aircraft, including fighters and bombers, had conducted an exercise involving flying through the strait to the western Pacific Ocean, conducting surveillance, patrols and airborne refuelling.

Military analysts said the scale of the latest long-range drill was “unprecedented”, South China Morning Post reported.

“This is very rare – the large number and variety of aircraft have not been seen before,” Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said, adding that previous drills to the Western Pacific usually ­involved fewer than 20 aircraft.

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Reports also said Chinese aircraft also carried out a patrol mission over China’s air defence identification zone, which it unilaterally declared in November 2013, prompting concern by Tokyo and Washington.

On Monday, Suga called the Chinese declaration “something that interferes with the freedom of flight in international airspace, a basic principle of international law.”

“There is no change to (the government’s stance) that we absolutely cannot accept the Chinese military’s designation of the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, Japan’s inherent territory, as if it were Chinese airspace,” Suga said referring to the disputed uninhabited islands further west in Okinawa Prefecture that Beijing calls the Diaoyu.

A country can set up an ADIZ outside its territorial airspace as a national defence perimeter to determine whether fighters should be scrambled when foreign aircraft enter without prior notification.

The latest Chinese exercise follows one announced on September 12, during which the Chinese air force said its aircraft flew over the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan and the Philippines.