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Chinese drone buzzes Japanese islands causing fighters to scramble

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China flew a drone close to the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima on New Year’s Day. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces scrambled fighter jets to monitor the drone, which entered the area via the East China Sea en route to the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese said that the drone then circled back around and returned the same way it had come. 

The Japanese identified the drone as a Guizhou WZ-7 Soaring Dragon. The WZ-7 is a long-range reconnaissance drone that entered service with the Chinese military in 2018.

“It was the first sighting of that type of drone around Japan… [and] it is the fourth type of Chinese military drone ever spotted,” Japanese defense ministry officials said to NHK World.

Relations between China and Japan have taken a turn for the worse, as Beijing claims ownership of the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea that Japan administrates and supports Taiwan. 

Much to Beijing’s consternation, Japan has also revised its defense strategy and announced a defense spending increase to 2% of GDP beginning in 2027; the U.S. has heartily supported the increase

“Japan’s new documents reshape the ability of our alliance to promote peace and protect the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last month when the increase was announced. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also supported Japan’s national defense strategy, which he said aligned with the U.S. one.

Both strategies “underpin continuing bilateral efforts to modernize the alliance, bolster integrated deterrence, and address evolving regional and global security challenges through cooperation with like-minded allies and partners,” Secretary Austin said.

Related: Are Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-20 really stealth fighters?

Chinese activity in the region

The guided-missile frigate USS Taylor (FFG 50) leads U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships participating in a passing exercise in 2011. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Scott Youngblood/Released)

This drone flight on New Year’s Day is hardly an anomaly as China has been flexing its military might for some time near Japan. 

Last month, after Japan announced the increase to its defense budget, the Chinese navy conducted drills near Okinawa. The drills included an aircraft carrier, two destroyers, and a frigate and the Chinese navy launched more than 180 aircraft, helicopters, and drones in a show of force. In August of 2021, Chinese aircraft overflew the Miyako Strait, an international passageway that lies between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako islands, for three straight days. 

These moves come as China also displayed force against Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province.

China has said the bellicose moves were a response to American and Japanese actions that target and threaten it.

Last Thursday, a Chinese J-11 fighter came within 10 feet of a U.S. RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft over international airspace in the South China Sea.

In a statement, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said that the pilot of the Chinese fighter performed “an unsafe maneuver… forcing the RC-135 to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision.”

“The U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force is dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” the command added. 

“We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.”

Feature Image: A Chinese WZ-7 Soaring Dragon drone in 2022. (Photo by Infinty 0/Wikimedia Commons)

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Steve Balestrieri