Japan scrambles jets over China drone flight near disputed islets

A view shows guests listen while Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing China 14 May 2017

Thursday's scrambles were the first by the Self-Defense Forces against a drone, according to Defense Ministry officials.

Japan and China have always been at loggerheads over the tiny, uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The face-off is said to be another sign that Japan is on high alert over China's growing military assertiveness in the disputed territories and farther into the Pacific. The drone was seen above one of the ships, which was sailing about 14 kilometers west-northwest of the Senkakus for about four minutes from around 10:52 a.m. The contested Senkaku Island is controlled by Tokyo, but Beijing has laid claims on it.

In recent years, the sides have signed a pair of agreements aimed at preventing such encounters from sparking an global crisis, as happened in April 2001 when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a USA surveillance plane over the South China Sea, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and China's detention of the 24 United States crew members for 10 days.

China claims the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea as its own, calling them Diaoyu.

The Japan Coast Guard is trying to identify the type of the drone and the intention behind the flight. "We lodged a stern protest against this unilateral escalation of the situation by China".

The coast guard ordered the Chinese vessels to leave the waters and they did so almost two hours later.

The Chinese vessels were reportedly equipped with guns, Kyodo news agency cited Japan Coast Guard as saying.

"On top of that, there appears to have been a flight of a drone".

The move prompted an outcry from Japan and the United States, but a USA report a year ago suggested that it was not being fully enforced.

The case constituted "airspace incursion" for Japan, Inada added.

According to a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), China has built a hangar and a radar on a man-made island in the Spratly Islands.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing that she had no information about the incident, and the country's ministry of defence did not respond to AFP's request for comment. She did not name the media company. "As for the so-called representations or protest by the Japanese side, of course we can't accept it".

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said use of the drone aggravated tensions inflamed by what Japan says are a record number of scrambles by its Self-Defense Force aircraft in response to Chinese incursions in the last fiscal year.

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