Reuters International

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese bombers, fighters and early warning and aerial refuelling aircraft on Monday flew through the Bashi Channel that separates Taiwan and the Philippines to exercises in the Western Pacific, the air force said.

The air force described the exercises are part of normal, annual, planned drills, which accord with international law and practice. They come as China has been increasingly asserting itself in territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

"This move is to raise the air force's abilities via training, to meet the needs to maintaining national sovereignty, protecting national security and guaranteeing peaceful development," the air force said in a statement on its official microblog.

"This is common practice for the air forces of littoral states, and a normal need for China national defence and military building," it said.

The air force will organise regular exercises that fly past the "first island chain", the air force said, referring to an area that includes Japan's Ryukyu Islands and self-ruled Taiwan.

The exercises included early warning and inflight refuelling to help improve the air force's fighting ability far from home, it added.

China has rapidly been ramping up research into advanced new military equipment, including stealth jets, submarines, aircraft carriers and anti-satellite missiles, which has rattled nerves regionally and in the United States.

China's air force, along with its navy, has been honing its abilities to conduct operations far from its shores, including drills in which aircraft have flown through the Miyako Strait, a body of water between Japan's islands of Miyako and Okinawa, on their way to the Pacific.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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