May 19, 2017 12:37 pm JST

Apparent China drone near Senkakus is sovereignty violation: Japan

An object that appears to be a drone flies near a Chinese government vessel in the area near the Senkaku Islands on May 18. (Courtesy of Japan Coast Guard)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Friday criticized an apparent drone flight linked to a Chinese government vessel that entered Japanese waters around the disputed islands in the East China Sea the previous day, describing it as "a violation of sovereignty."

"A drone flight from a Chinese government ship that entered our territorial waters is totally unacceptable as we think it will lead to the escalation of the situation. The case is a serious violation of our national sovereignty," Inada said at a news conference.

The Air-Self Defense Force scrambled two F-15 fighter jets in response to the deployment of the drone around the Japanese-controlled islands, claimed by China. A Defense Ministry official said it is the first time that jets have been scrambled in response to a drone.

Tensions are high in the East China Sea due to a territorial dispute over the Senkaku islets, which China call Diaoyu. Chinese vessels have frequently entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, but this is the first time that what appeared to be a drone was spotted.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a separate press conference that the drone flight is "a new type of action by China."

"We have sternly protested (to China) that it is utterly unacceptable," he said.

The incident took place after the Japan Coast Guard confirmed four China Coast Guard vessels entering Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands as well as the existence of a drone flying above one of the vessels Thursday morning.

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

Inada said the case constitutes "airspace incursion."

According to the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces scrambled jets against an unmanned vehicle in 2013 in the East China Sea, but it was not a drone and it did not violate Japan's airspace.

At that time, the ministry suspected the vehicle belonged to China, but later concluded that its origins could not be determined, according to the official.

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