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Japan puts early-warning aircraft on Okinawa amid China's moves

Japan Air Self Defense Force air crew members direct and watch as pilots extend the wings on a E-2C Hawkeye at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in this Feb. 5, 2009, file photo.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan has permanently assigned a new early-warning aircraft unit to Naha Air Base on Okinawa in response to Chinese probing around its southern island chain, officials say.

The Asahi Shimbun reported that four E-2C aircraft and approximately 130 members of the Japan Air Self Defense Force have been permanently repositioned from Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The aircraft from the 603rd Airborne Unit will be responsible for surveillance and patrolling the peripheral airspace of the southwestern region, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman.

The move comes after Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force broke ground last month on a Coastal Monitoring Squadron base at Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island. Experts have said Japanese expansions could be seen as a provocation by China and further inflame tensions in the region.

Officials from U.S. Forces Japan declined to comment.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera attended a ceremony April 20 at Naha Air Base to commemorate the establishment of the new unit.

“The number of scrambles against Chinese aircraft quadrupled in the past four years,” he told reporters following the ceremony. “The unit with E-2C early-warning aircraft was assigned newly here at Naha Air Base to enhance the early-warning and surveillance mission. The assignment of the new unit is important for Japan to continue to defend our territory, waters and skies.”

Onodera later told a news conference that having a defense force base on the island is critical for Japan’s security.

“This island is located in the westernmost point of our country, therefore, the coastal monitoring mission on an island like this is crucially important for Japan’s security,” he said.

To replace the aircraft moving to Okinawa, the Airborne Early Warning Group and the 601st Airborne Unit were assigned to Misawa, the statement said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

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