TOKYO - Japan's leader has warned China against forcibly changing the regional balance of power, as reports Sunday said his government had scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese military aircraft flying near Okinawa.
Verbal skirmishing between Asia's two biggest economies escalated after Beijing warned Tokyo that any hostile action in the skies against Chinese aircraft would be construed as an "act of war".
"There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview following a series of summits this month with regional leaders.
"But if China opts to take that path, then it won't be able to emerge peacefully," he told the Wall Street Journal.
"So it shouldn't take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view. And they hope that as a result, China will take responsible action in the international community," Abe added in the interview published Saturday.
On Sunday, Jiji Press and Kyodo News reported that Japan had deployed jets for two days running in response to four Chinese military aircraft flying over international waters near the Okinawa island chain.
The Chinese military planes -- two Y8 early-warning aircraft and two H6 bombers -- flew from the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean and back again, but did not violate Japan's airspace, the reports said.
The Japanese defence ministry was not immediately available for confirmation.
Japan's military is on increased alert as Tokyo and Beijing pursue a war of words over disputed islands in the East China Sea that lie between Okinawa and Taiwan.