By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - China is holding some of its most extensive military exercises this week off its eastern seaboard, and although rival Japan is unperturbed, they are causing massive disruptions in civilian air traffic in Shanghai and other cities.
Live-fire drills will be held for the next five days off China's coast in the East China Sea opposite Japan starting on Tuesday, the Ministry of National Defence said.
Civil aviation authorities have issued a red alert, resulting in a near shutdown of 19 airports in eastern and southern China between 2-6 p.m. (0500-1000 GMT), at least on Tuesday. Those affected include Shanghai's two main airports, which cater to tens of thousands of passengers each day.
The military is also holding live fire drills in the Gulf of Tonkin, which borders both China and Vietnam. Seven days of drills are also scheduled in the Bohai Strait and Yellow Sea, near the Korean peninsula, state media reported.
The military exercises, which analysts say are larger in scope and duration than in years past, come amid an increase in tensions with Japan and other Asian nations. The government has said the drills in the East China Sea are annual and routine but Beijing's Public Security Bureau has said they could affect flights until mid-August.
"The drills have been going on for a long time, but in the past they were isolated - just in the Bohai Strait or the Yellow Sea for instance," said Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.
"But conducting many drills at the same time in the Bohai Strait, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Yellow Sea, is something new. This has been made necessary by China's military modernisation campaign."
The exercises come as Chinese strategists bristle at the United States’ traditional military dominance in Asia, with Washington’s Japanese bases sitting at the core of that superiority.
They also fear a new U.S. military concept to better co-ordinate operational forces known as the “Air Sea Battle” is designed to counter China’s growing regional presence.
Japan however has played down any significance of the exercises.
"For any country, conducting drills in nearby seas is what they routinely do," Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
"We ourselves carry out exercises in a solid manner. We take this as China's routine exercise. It is our understanding that this is not the kind of exercise aimed at a particular country or a particular situation."
President Xi Jinping has placed great emphasis on expanding China's military might, analysts said, and the expanded drills are key to testing combat readiness and capability.
This year's exercises are unique in that they stretch over a longer period of time and are more comprehensive, focusing on coordination between military branches to test the armed forces' preparation for actual combat, the analysts said.
Beijing's ties with Tokyo have soured over competing claims to a string of uninhabited islets, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, in the East China Sea.
In the potentially oil-rich South China Sea, China has overlapping claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
(Additional reporting by Fang Yan and Beijing Newsroom, Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)