By Ben Blanchard and J.R. Wu
BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Chinese jets and warships carried out exercises near Taiwan and into the Western Pacific on Thursday, as the self-ruled island's defense minister warned of a growing threat from its giant neighbor.
Democratic Taiwan is increasingly concerned over China's military designs, especially recent rounds of Chinese drills near Taiwan. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take control of what it deems a wayward province.
China's official Xinhua news agency said fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft had flown through the Miyako Strait, between the southern Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and to the northeast of Taiwan, and into the Pacific.
They then carried out drills with Chinese warships in the area to improve interoperability between the two services, Xinhua said.
"This exercise is part of annual plans for the navy, is not aimed at a specific country or target, and accords with relevant international laws and norms," it added in a brief report.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry said it monitored the drills, which took place outside Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone, and that there was no cause for alarm.
Speaking earlier in the day, Taiwan's defense minister said its navy would step up regular patrols around the South China Sea and conduct joint training with the air force in response to China's growing military power in the disputed waterways.
Beijing claims almost all the South China Sea, and recently sailed its first aircraft carrier around Taiwan in what it called a routine exercise.
"Looking ahead at the transformation of China's strategy and its investment in new weapons equipment, our military will practise new reforms in our training," Taiwan Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan told a parliamentary session.
"The navy, during its regular South China Sea patrols, will conduct joint training with the air force in protecting fishermen and supply transports, and in humanitarian rescue drills to expand the combat readiness of our sea and air patrols."
The need for China to conduct drills in bigger air and sea space, particularly in the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan's east, represented "an increase in threat", Feng said.
Taiwan deploys regular supplies to Itu Aba, its sole holding in the South China Sea, the energy rich waters that are also claimed by China, and in part by Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
China will unveil its defense budget for 2017 on the weekend, at an annual meeting of its parliament. The figures are closely watched around the region and in Washington for clues to China's intentions.
(Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)