Japanese military officials said they were keeping a close eye on seven Chinese warships spotted in waters off a southern island yesterday. It was unclear whether the ship movements were related to a territorial dispute that has prompted both countries to show off their maritime muscles.
The Chinese ships were sighted about 49km from the island of Yonaguni, in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry. They were about 200km from a chain of small islands that have sparked a heated dispute between Japan and China.
The ships were believed to be returning to China after training in the Pacific.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said Tokyo was monitoring the ships’ movement. Japan considers the area part of its contiguous waters, but it is not illegal for foreign vessels to transit them.
It is not unusual for the Chinese navy to transit waters around Okinawa en route to the Pacific, but this is the first such operation observed this year, according to public broadcaster NHK.
The ships included frigates, a guided missile destroyer, a refueler and two submarine rescue vessels.
It was unclear if their mission was directly related to the territorial issue, or whether they were trying to avoid an approaching typhoon.
Japan angered China last month by purchasing three of a chain of East China Sea islands called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in Chinese. The move sparked violent protests in China. Taiwan also claims the islands, calling them the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼).
Chief Japanese Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Tokyo has urged Beijing to “avoid any actions that would go counter to the mutual benefit.”
China and Japan have recently stepped up naval activities in the area around Okinawa because of the dispute, but there have been no clashes between their warships, which have generally stayed away from the islands themselves.
Wary of missteps that could lead to a sudden escalation of tensions, the countries have instead sent less threatening coast guard ships. However, over the past week, both have made a point of showing off their naval prowess.
Chinese Web sites were abuzz on Monday with photographs of navy pilots practicing touch-and-go landing exercises on China’s first aircraft carrier. It was not clear when the pictures were taken, and they did not appear on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s Web site or in official media.
The carrier was launched last month without aircraft or a battle group, and actual flight operations could be years away, but it is widely seen as a symbol of China’s ambition to be a leading Asian naval power, especially as it faces sharpening territorial conflicts with Japan and other countries.