China’s carrier group – including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, one Renhai class stealth guided missile destroyer, two Luyang III class guided missile destroyers, one Jiangkai II multi-role frigate and one Fuyu class fast combat support ship – were spotted passing the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island and heading towards the Pacific on Saturday morning.
Japan has sent destroyer JS Suzutsuki, a P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and a P-3C anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft to “gather information and monitor the movements of the Chinese vessels”, the joint staff said in a statement published on Sunday.
This is the first time the Liaoning is known to pass this waterway since April last year. It follows military exercises the US conducted with allies in the region, including a two-day joint drill with the Australian navy in the Eastern Pacific last week, and the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt CSG entering the South China Sea on Sunday morning after a joint-exercise with the Indian army.
The Liaoning crossed the same waterway in June 2019 and December 2016.
Tension between the People’s Liberation Army and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force in the East China Sea has escalated in recent months following Tokyo repeatedly voicing concerns over China’s new coastguard law. The law came into effect in February and allows China’s quasi-military force to use weapons against foreign ships that Beijing sees as illegally entering its waters.
In early March, Japan’s coastguard said China’s coastguard had expanded its presence in the contested waters by entering twice a month and as frequently as twice a week near the Japanese-controlled Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands.
The joint staff office of the Japanese Defence Ministry published photos of the six Chinese vessels in the Liaoning carrier group on Sunday. The statement said they were heading towards the Pacific Ocean.
The new United States administration under President Joe Biden has reaffirmed a pledge to oppose any unilateral action that threatens to undermine Japan’s administration of the islands, and that the US is obliged to defend Japan should its territories come under attack.
Last week, China’s defence ministry urged Japan to stop making provocative moves and refrain from attacking China over the disputed islands after the defence ministries of both countries held a virtual meeting last Monday. The meeting was for maritime and air liaison communication, a mechanism created in 2007 to improve trust and cut the chance of military miscalculation between the two countries.