PLA ships seen testing drones in Pacific Ocean
Japan says more Chinese naval ships have been seen near Okinawa, with some staging drills involving unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) able to carry missiles and conduct surveillance that analysts say is crucial for China to expand its maritime power.
The Joint Staff Office of the Japanese Defence Ministry said the country's maritime defence force on Monday morning spotted three Chinese ships - two Type 054A multi-role warships and one Dongdiao 232 electronic surveillance ship - going through the Okinawa Miyako Strait on their way to the East China Sea.
Earlier reports indicated the three People's Liberation Army (PLA) warships conducted take-off and landing exercises involving UAVs on April 29, about 700 kilometres east of Okinotori Island, a tiny Pacific atoll Japan considers part of its territory but which China considers a mere reef.
UAVs are considered vital weapons above 21st-century battlefields. The drones can be used as all- weather fighters, reconnaissance planes, information gatherers and can even carry anti-ship cruise missiles.
Senior Colonel Li Jie, from China's Naval Academy, said the PLA naval drills on the high seas show that China's UAV technology has improved.
'Our navy is obliged to stage drills, and it should intensify military drills in all waters it can visit in today's tough climate,' Li said, referring to China's territorial disputes with neighbours in the East and South China seas.
'Beijing's UAV technology still lags behind the United States,' Li said. 'However, if our navy decided to launch UAV drills near Okinotori ... it means our UAV technology has reached a certain standard.'
He also noted that the PLA navy has previously carried out UAV drills on land and offshore, but said that 'air flow and weather conditions are so different on the high seas compared with offshore, so it's necessary to go far to test our home-made UAVs'.
Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing, said Japan and Western countries should not be surprised by the PLA's drills in the East China Sea.
'We didn't go there in the past because the PLA was weak and incapable of doing so, but now our navy should go as far as we can, because today's China is strong, while our maritime interests are expanding,' Xu said. 'Why isn't the world surprised to see US naval ships appear in Asia, but it questions why there are PLA ships in the East China Sea?'
At the 2006's Zhuhai Air Show, China shocked the world by unveiling five UAV models - some of which were said to be stealth fighters capable of evading enemy radar.
On May 11, 2007, six months after the air show, the weekly Military Digest, run by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, said the PLA had converted more than 1,000 retired second-generation Jian-5 fighters into UAVs or cruise missiles that could be used to target US aircraft carriers in a cross-strait conflict.
The report said China's UAV development had quickly caught up to advanced international standards, including those of the US and Israel, and added that China would decommission thousands of Jian-6 fighters in 2010.