The Xian H-6K bombers flew over the Miyako Strait, which separates the islands of Miyako and Okinawa. The Japanese scrambled fighter jets and protested Chinese warplanes mere miles away from the strategically significant Okinawa Island, but the Chinese noted that they didn't violate Japanese airspace.
The Defense Ministry added that it was "legal and proper" for their military aircraft to operate in neutral airspace, and they would regularly conduct training exercises close to Japanese islands according to "mission requirements."
"The relevant side should not make a fuss about nothing or over-interpret, it will be fine once they get used to it," the ministry's statement concluded.
The Chinese move seemed carefully calculated: they did not violate Japanese airspace, nor did they violate Taiwanese airspace, but came extremely close to doing both. This is the latest in a long series of similar exercises from the Chinese Navy and Air Force in the Western Pacific.
The Miyako Strait is more than just the southernmost reach of Japanese territory. It is right next to Okinawa, which hosts 75 percent of the American military personnel stationed in Japan, and it is also quite close to the disputed island chain between China and Japan in the East China Sea.
Chinese authorities deny that there's any symbolic or political significance to the exercises. "The Miyako Strait is the most convenient international sea way for China to enter the Pacific Ocean," Jiang Lifeng, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Beijing-affiliated Global Times. "China's regular voyage training is a part of the development plan to enlarge the combat range of the military force, which aims to maintain the regional peace and stability," Jiang noted.
In March 2017, 13 Chinese naval aircraft flew through the strait. The large-scale drill included bombers, fighters, and early warning aircraft. In April, the Chinese Navy sent several vessels through the Miyako Strait.
China flew through the Miyako Strait in May 2015, then with two H-6 bombers. Japan replied by scrambling fighter jets, as they do several hundred times a year against the Chinese. Similar incidents played out in September, November and December of 2016.
In response to frequent Chinese drills, Japan has doubled the number of fighter jets they scramble to respond to foreign planes buzzing their airspace. They have also constructed a new air wing of all-weather air superiority fighters stationed in Okinawa in 2016.
H-6K long-range bombers can carry supersonic anti-ship missiles or subsonic land-attack cruise missiles, making them versatile weapons against both naval and land targets.