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September 20, 2017

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China warships sail near Japan islands

TOKYO -- A Chinese naval flotilla including destroyers sailed through waters near Japanese islands on Tuesday, in what one commentator said was a sign of things to come as China flexes its military muscles.

The seven warships — at least one of which was capable of firing missiles — passed close to territory internationally recognized as Japanese. The two nations are already embroiled in a bitter wrangle over a separate island chain.

It is not unusual for the Chinese navy to transit waters around Okinawa en route to the Pacific, but this is the first such operation observed this year, according to public broadcaster NHK. The ships included frigates, a guided missile destroyer, a refueler and two submarine rescue vessels.

It was unclear if their mission was directly related to the territorial issue, or whether they were trying to avoid an approaching typhoon.

China's Defense Ministry said the ships were on a scheduled cruising exercise and were acting in a manner that was "appropriate and legal."

Underscoring China's sharper stance, it also protested the scrambling of a Japanese military plane in the direction of the disputed islands, calling that a "gross violation" of Chinese sovereign rights.

"The Chinese military is closely following the actions of the Japanese side and demands Japan halt all actions complicating or escalating the situation," the ministry said in a short statement on its website.

A Japan Defense Ministry spokesman said it was the first time the Chinese navy had used the passage, but Ryo Sahashi, a specialist in international politics at Kanagawa University, said it would not be the last.

"Generally speaking, China acts in accordance with its government's claims," he said.

"It is likely that we will see similar acts repeated in the future," he said, while cautioning it was too early to assess the full meaning of the move.

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