Japanese fighter jets were scrambled to intercept Chinese reconnaissance aircraft operating above the waters between the East Asian archipelago and South Korea a record number of six times in the last nine months of 2018, according to the country’s defence ministry. In previous years, no more than two Chinese spy planes had been spotted in the area. Between the start of April and the end of December, 758 foreign aircraft that flew close to Japanese airspace were intercepted, an increase from 736 incidents in the same period a year before and the second-highest total on record. Of these, 476 – or 63 per cent – were against Chinese military aircraft, up by 81 on the previous year. A further 270 missions were flown to monitor the movements of Russian aircraft, primarily in airspace off the northern island of Hokkaido – 58 fewer incidents than in the same nine-month period in 2017. Japan’s military has become accustomed to Chinese aircraft around the Okinawa islands – including the disputed Diaoyu archipelago , which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands – and maintains a sizeable naval and aerial presence in the area. But the recent uptick in flights through the strait separating Japan and South Korea represent a demonstration of Beijing’s intent to expand its military presence in the region, according to Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. China’s military overhaul likely to fuel neighbour’s concerns “The Chinese fleet and naval capabilities have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and we are increasingly seeing them coordinating air and surface elements,” he said. “[They] are expanding the scope and frequency of their operations, but the problem is that all these things are new to China’s neighbours and by definition change the status quo.” On July 27, a Chinese Shaanxi Y-9JB surveillance aircraft was shadowed by Japanese fighters after traversing the East China Sea and flying over the Sea of Japan, or East Sea. The aircraft was in Japan’s air defence identification zone but did not enter its territorial airspace and returned along a similar route. Another Y-9 carried out a virtually identical mission one month later. “I don’t think there is any suggestion that these flights are trying to be provocative, but it’s more Beijing sending the message that they have the ability to carry out these operations and that while Japan may be constrained in the actions that its military takes under the constitution, China is not necessarily bound by the same demands,” Okumura, of the Meiji Institute, said. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said China is “asserting itself and sending a very clear message that it is not willing to be bound up in the ‘first island chain’.” A key concern for Beijing’s military planners has been the fact that its maritime and air assets are effectively hemmed in by islands that stretch from the Philippines in the south to Japan in the north, making it difficult for Chinese forces to sortie into the Pacific without being detected. In a time of war, that geographical limitation would give Chinese forces less room to manoeuvre and make them easier targets. South Korea slams Japan’s flights near its warships “We are now seeing the Chinese doing just what they did in the South China Sea, they’re telling everyone that they are not going away and, on the contrary, their presence is going to continue expanding,” Kingston said. “And there may also be a veiled rebuke to Japan for carrying out naval patrols in the South China Sea.” The academic described an “arc of anxiety” stretching from New Delhi through Canberra and Jakarta to Tokyo at “China’s grandiose maritime ambitions.” “China itself is doing a lot to promote solidarity in those nations, particularly at a time of concern that the US is not as reliable a security partner as it was before [President Donald] Trump,” he added. Okumura said he senses that China’s muscle-flexing within sight of Japan means that Beijing “has already succeeded in putting the status quo surrounding the Senkaku islands in limbo”. China claims sovereignty over the islands, which are currently controlled by Japan. “Both nations are effectively patrolling the waters around those islands and the new reality is that Japan is not now exercising full sovereignty over the Senkakus,” Okumura said.