A Chinese naval flotilla passed through waters near islands in Okinawa, Japan, yesterday, further stoking tensions between Beijing and Tokyo already inflamed over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea.
The seven warships from the People's Liberation Army Navy's North Sea Fleet included destroyers, frigates, a refuelling vessel and submarine rescue vessels were spotted 49 kilometres from Yonaguni Island in Okinawa prefecture, Japan's defence ministry said, adding that it believed they were returning from an exercise in the Pacific earlier this month.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Tokyo had demanded that Beijing take care of Sino-Japanese ties.
But China's Ministry of National Defence said the ships had been on a routine training exercise and were passing through the area in an "appropriate and legal" manner. "Japan has deployed military aircraft to areas around the Diaoyu Islands, and this seriously violates China's territorial rights," the defence ministry said. "We are closely following the moves by Japan, and call on Japan to stop any moves that will complicate and exaggerate the situation."
Chinese vessels must pass near the islands of the Okinawa chain to move between the Pacific and the East China Sea. But there are gaps between the islands that allow vessels to avoid Japan's contiguous zones, an area that extends another 12 nautical miles beyond its 12 nautical miles of territorial waters.
Japan's defence ministry spokesman said the Chinese vessels had "passed through a wider space between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island on their way out" on October 4. "They passed through the narrow strait on the way back, and this is the first time we have confirmed that they passed through the gap," he said.
The Chinese vessels were about 200 kilometres from the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.
Mainland analysts said the PLA Navy's move was an intentional demonstration of Beijing's dismay at the international support Tokyo was receiving for its claim to the disputed islands and Japan's display of naval strength on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of its Maritime Self- Defence Force.
There have also been reports suggesting that Japan and the US are considering a joint military drill to simulate the retaking of a remote island next month.
"Beijing is not convinced that Tokyo will attempt to cool down tensions," said Zhou Yongsheng , a Japanese affairs expert at China Foreign Affairs University.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called last week for bilateral talks to contain the economic damage resulting from the diplomatic row, and both countries agreed to hold vice-ministerial-level talks to resolve the dispute.
"The military moves by the Chinese are an attempt to show strength ahead of any bilateral talks, creating the impression that China is determined to protect its sovereignty," said Ni Lexiong , director of a defence policy research centre at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse