The latest incident involved a Su-27 jet fighter, similar to this one.

The latest incident involved a Su-27 jet fighter, similar to this one. Photo: Reuters

Tokyo: Japan protested to Beijing on Wednesday after Chinese fighter jets flew within 30 metres of Japanese military planes in airspace claimed by both nations. Similar flybys in the same area took place several weeks ago.

In two separate episodes on Wednesday, Chinese Su-27 fighters flew dangerously close to two Japanese propeller-driven reconnaissance airplanes in skies over the East China Sea, Japan's defence ministry said.

The flybys are the latest escalation in an increasingly tense test of wills between China and Japan for dominance of the East China Sea, which includes a group of uninhabited islets that both nations claim. Japan took control of the island group when it was a rising imperial power in the late 19th century, but now a newly resurgent China wants to regain what it sees as stolen territory.

The ministry said the Japanese planes had returned safely to base, though the faster Chinese jets came close enough that the crew of one Japanese craft photographed what appeared to be white missiles on the underside of the jets.

A similar encounter took place last month, when Chinese fighter planes flew as close as 30 metres to Japanese reconnaissance planes in the same area.

Japan's defence ministry said the incidents had taken place in airspace where both nations claim overlapping "air defence identification zones" - areas bordering sovereign airspace where foreign aircraft were required to identify themselves and to provide flight plans. Japan has ignored the Chinese air zone since Beijing declared it late last year.

There was no immediate comment by Chinese officials on Wednesday.

Analysts have said the flybys could be a sign that China has begun trying to enforce its air zone. However, they warn that the high-speed flybys carry the risk of an accident or miscalculation that could spiral out of control, causing a larger confrontation.

They point to a 2001 accident in which a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese jet over the South China Sea, briefly provoking a tense standoff that was eventually defused by negotiations. With the leaders of China and Japan now barely on speaking terms, analysts said such an incident between the two nations could potentially escalate into a full-blown military clash that may even involve the United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan.

Speaking to reporters, the Japanese defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, called the flybys "an extremely dangerous action by fighter planes against aircraft engaged in normal reconnaissance operations over international waters."

"We have lodged a stern protest to the Chinese side, via diplomatic channels," he said.

New York Times