The Japanese Self-Defense Forces were on a high state of alert on September 9 ahead of the first anniversary of Japan’s controversial purchase of islets in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago, particularly after a pair of Chinese bombers flew near Okinawa the previous day.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has ordered military personnel to strengthen their surveillance around the Senkakus, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan. A source in the Japanese government indicated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese maritime enforcement could take “outstanding” action in the area on September 11, the first anniversary of the purchase.
The “nationalization” of three of the five islets comprising the Senkakus in 2012 sparked large-scale protests across China, which also claims ownership of the oil- and natural-gas-rich area. Beijing retaliated against Japan’s attempted nationalization of the islets by increasing the frequency of naval patrols in the area, raising fears of accidental clashes and escalation.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Defense Ministry confirmed in a statement that it had scrambled fighter aircraft on September 8 to shadow two Chinese Xian H-6 bombers that were observed between the main island of southern Okinawa and Miyakojima, an area that Chinese vessels have often used to transit into the Pacific Ocean to conduct exercises. The bombers reportedly did not violate Japanese airspace.
The H-6 is based on the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-16 Badger. A newer variant comes equipped with intermediate-range cruise missiles.
Itsunori nevertheless described the flight as “unusual” and called for vigilance two days prior to Wednesday’s anniversary. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense confirmed on Monday that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft had recently headed for the West Pacific for routine exercises, which it said were not aimed at any specific country.
Separately, Japan also confirmed that two Chinese warships — Type 054A frigates Yiyang and Changzhou — were observed approximately 100 km northeast of Miyakojima on September 9 heading from the Pacific into the East China Sea.
In another “unusual incident,” an unidentified unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was spotted near the Senkakus around noon on September 9. The Air Self-Defence Force dispatched combat aircraft to intercept the drone, whose origin has yet to be confirmed. A Defense Ministry official said the UAV, which never entered Japanese airspace, had come from the northwest and was seen returning in that direction. This was the first reported incident of this kind.
Based on image analysis and unconfirmed reports, the drone is believed to have been a BZK-005 medium/high-altitude long-range unmanned reconnaissance UAV from the PLA.
Asked to comment on the incident, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei intially said he was unaware of the situation. The PLA later confirmed that the UAV belonged to China and said it was on a routine mission.