A record number of fighter jets were scrambled by Japan's air force from the start of the year till 31 March to chase away Chinese and other foreign aircraft, the Tokyo government's figures released on Thursday, 13 April, showed.

The move reportedly came in a bid to counter the increased military activity by the Chinese in and around the East China Sea, where Beijing has locked horns with Tokyo over rival claims to a long chain of islands traditionally administered by Japan.

Japan's Air Self Defence Force scrambled its fighter jets 1,168 times over the past 12 months, according to Reuters, up from 873 in 2016.

A record number of 851 jets were dispatched to intercept the approaching Chinese planes, which was again 280 more instances compared to the corresponding period last year.

The new figure also beats the previous high of 944 incidents in 1984, triggered mostly by Russian aircraft, Reuters reported.

The latest government figures showed that Japan's encounter with Russian aircraft rose by 4.5%. Russia usually flies bombers from the north to skirt around Japan's airspace.

Japan is reported to be concerned over Beijing's interest in Tokyo's air defences as part of its muscle-flexing exercises not only in the disputed territories but also farther into the Pacific. Japan controls an island chain in the East China Sea that stretches 1,400km south towards Taiwan. China calls the group of islets as Diaoyu while Japan refers to them as Senkaku.

"Recently we have seen Chinese military aircraft operating further south and that is bringing them closer to the main Okinawa island and other parts of the island chain," Reuters cited Japan's top military commander, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, as saying.

Beijing is known to scramble its warplanes into the western Pacific waters through international airspace and the Miyako Strait is one of the few routes that it uses. Both Miyako and Okinawa are Japanese territories. Okinawa is the home base for the majority of US troops that are stationed in Japan.

The sharp increase in Chinese activity has contributed to rising tensions in East Asia, where North Korea has also been pushing ahead with its ballistic missile tests.

Japan and China Trade Blame over Fighter Jets' Close Encounter
Japan's Air Self Defence Force scrambled its fighter jets 1,168 times over the past 12 months. Reuters file photo