The People's Liberation Army's naval air force has carried out attack drills in both the East and South China seas in a show of force directed at countries involved in territorial disputes with China, according to naval experts.
Photos posted on the website of the PLA Navy on Wednesday showed several J-10 fighter jets that had been sent by the East China Sea Fleet to the waters of the East China Sea close to the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, which are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo.
The website said the drill took place "recently", without saying when. The photo captions said that air-to-air missiles were carried thousands of kilometres by the military aircraft and then launched in a live-fire drill, to more accurately simulate a real combat scenario. The drill marked the first time that the naval air force fired air-to-air missiles far out at sea.
Another drill was conducted by the South China Sea Fleet on January 8 and featured day and night air raids by Hong-6 bombers, which had to evade enemy radar and electromagnetic interference en route to an attack on a harbour more than 1,000 kilometres away from the naval base in Zhanjiang , Guangdong, according to the navy's website. Pilots who took part in that drill had to fly more than eight hours from Zhanjiang for the staged attack, which took place in an open sea area.
The naval drills came amid escalating tensions between China and Japan over the territorial row that has seen ties between the nations deteriorate since the Japanese government purchased the disputed chain from a private owner in September.
Last week, Beijing confirmed that it had scrambled two J-10 fighter jets to monitor Japanese aircraft near the Diaoyus, while Tokyo said it was considering stationing F-15 fighter jets on Shimoji-jima Island in Okinawa prefecture to deal with Chinese aircraft.
Ni Lexiong , director of the sea power and defence policy research institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the drills indicated that the PLA Navy had changed its strategy from inshore defence to open-sea counterattacks far offshore.
"The drills in the East and South China seas were obviously also intended to warn Japan and [other Southeast Asian] countries that the army is well prepared for any possible battles if our sovereignty is threatened," Ni said.
The Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA naval fleet's improved combat abilities should also aid in China's increasing role in international anti-piracy and escort missions
"We have never hidden our desire to sail into deep waters, and this also enhances our navy's combat abilities in dealing with a crisis or attack," Li said.
Li said that more naval drills on the high seas, as well as other military exercises held in tough situations, would be carried out by the PLA in the future.