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Politics

Air force drills show China's expanded horizons in Pacific

BEIJING -- China's latest air force exercises in the Western Pacific Ocean indicate Beijing's new normal of moving military activity beyond traditional boundaries.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force said that on Sunday it flew 40 aircraft through the Miyako Strait separating the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa en route to the Western Pacific for training exercises. The fleet included strategic bombers and fighter jets, as well as aerial refueling aircraft and intelligence gathering aircraft.

The aircraft performed drills including reconnaissance and refueling, and tested the air force's fighting capacity on the high seas, spokesman Shen Jinke told Chinese media. The air force will continue to develop and protect the country's airspace as it makes a strategic pivot toward enhancing combat capabilities, he said.

Sunday's drills mark the third time a Chinese air force fleet has passed through the Miyako strait. They involved the largest fleet to date, and included fighter jets for the first time. The Bashi Channel, a strategically important strait connecting the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, was first used as a path to such drills in March 2015. Since then, the air force has overflown the waterways a total of six times en route to training exercises.

The air force's activity in the Western Pacific is expanding more quickly than many had imagined. China in 2015 announced a shift in the force's strategic focus from territorial defense to both defense and offense. This means the force will become more active beyond a string of islands including Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan's Kyushu that has traditionally been taken as the boundary for territorial defense. Sunday's drills were part of this new strategy. Similar activity is expected in the future as China works over the long term to chip away at Japanese and U.S. military influence in the region.

Japan aims to "put every effort into surveillance and take strict measures to address airspace violations" as international law and the code governing the Self-Defense Forces allow, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Monday.

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