A naval frigate came to the rescue of a Zhejiang fishing boat on fire near disputed waters in the East China Sea, shedding light on the People's Liberation Army's readiness to deploy in the region amid the simmering territorial spat with Japan.
It arrived ahead of three Japanese coastguard patrol ships that responded to an earlier request by China for help, according to mainland media and Japan's Kyodo news agency. Xinhua reported six of the 24 people aboard died in the blaze.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the presence of the Zhoushan had indicated the PLA's air and sea readiness after Beijing announced the creation of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in November. The zone includes the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan, and has drawn protests from Tokyo.
Xinhua said yesterday that the Zhoushan had received a distress signal at 4.30pm on Friday after a fire broke out on the Chinese fishing boat Zhelingyu 90058.
It said the East Sea Fleet, which oversees the East China Sea, then sent the Zhoushan from a destroyer force patrolling nearby waters to take part in the rescue.
The navy's website said the Zhoushan had met two Chinese vessels at 9.20pm and began a joint rescue operation. One sailor with severe burns was taken to the warship for treatment by doctors and medical staff on board.
The Zhoushan later sailed for more than 10 hours to take the injured sailor to a military hospital, while the other 17 sailors were believed to be returning to port after their boat was repaired, mainland media reported.
Kyodo said the Japanese coastguard had sent three patrol ships and one jet to rescue the Chinese fishing crew after it received an SOS signal on Friday.
But later the Chinese authorities told the Japanese their ships would take care of the rescue, and the three Japanese vessels turned back halfway.
"The result is predictable because our warship is obviously much faster than Japanese coastguard patrol ships," Li said. "The PLA has strengthened its maritime operations since the establishment of the ADIZ, including naval drills and other non-traditional military exercises."
Professor Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based naval expert, said Japan would be wary after the PLA's fast reaction.
"The Japanese coastguard should be aware that it appears the PLA navy treated this rescue as a live drill - and they performed pretty well," he said.