CHINA began new military live-fire drills in the East China Sea yesterday as reports surfaced that it has established a military command centre for the area amid rising tensions with neighbouring Japan over a territorial dispute.
The latest drills add to exercises under way in other areas that state media notes are "of a rare breadth and scale", and cause domestic travellers to brace themselves for more flight delays.
The five-day exercise in China's south-eastern coast, which will end on Saturday, means the People's Liberation Army is now conducting drills in four seas at the same time - a situation rarely seen, analysts say.
China is currently holding live-fire drills off Beibu Bay, or the Gulf of Tonkin, near Vietnam as well as drills in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Strait near Korea Bay, both of which will end on Friday.
These large-scale war games come at a sensitive time when tensions have risen over territorial disputes that China and its neighbours are embroiled in.
Tokyo and Beijing both claim the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. The situation there deteriorated after Japan nationalised some of the isles in 2012, with fears of an accidental clash rising as China sends patrol ships and military planes regularly to the Japanese-controlled area.
Meanwhile, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China set up an oil rig in the South China Sea in an area also claimed by Hanoi.
Japan yesterday played down the significance of the new drills, with Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera saying: "For any country, conducting drills in nearby seas is what they routinely do.
He added: "It is our understanding that this is not the kind of exercise aimed at a particular country or a particular situation."
According to the latest edition of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review, China has set up a unified battle command centre for the East China Sea after it first established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) there last November. The report, which was picked up by many local media outlets yesterday, said the purpose of the centre was twofold: to effectively implement the ADIZ and to ensure that Japan will not take hasty military action.
It added that China has close to 10 regiments of third-generation fighter jets on the front line, comprising about 300 modern jets, while Japan's air power at Okinawa is inferior in strength.
While this has not been confirmed by the authorities, experts say the establishment of such a centre, if true, is not surprising.
Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong told The Straits Times that such a centre would likely have been set up "a while ago" as tensions between Tokyo and Beijing escalated over the disputed islands. "It could have been set up earlier this year when there were a few dangerous close encounters between the military of the two countries. There would already be a need for such a centre then to coordinate operations in such tense situations," he said.
He added that the large-scale drills are meant to send a signal not only to Japan but also to the United States. China has blamed the US' rebalancing to Asia for rising tensions in the region.
Mr Ni said the current massive exercises might be repeated if ties between China and the two countries continue to be tense.
Other experts noted that the drills also come on the back of President Xi Jinping's call for China's military to increase its battle-readiness as part of a military modernisation programme.