Washington refusing to acknowledge zone and US officials say B-52 bombers entered it without identifying themselves
The open challenge by the US to China’s new air defence zone over the East China Sea has met with a muted response in Beijing, as China faced growing resistance to its attempt to extend its authority in the region.
China’s defence ministry said it had monitored two unarmed B-52 bombers that flew though the zone on Tuesday, and reasserted its ability to control the airspace. But its statement did not mention a previous warning that it would take “defensive emergency measures” if aircraft did not respond to instructions.
The zone covers islands at the heart of a long-running territorial dispute with Japan and overlaps with those already established by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Analysts say China is testing Japan’s administrative control of the islands, while Beijing says it is exercising its right to self-defence.
Washington and Tokyo are refusing to acknowledge the zone and US officials said the B-52s had entered it without identifying themselves, with no attempted contact from the Chinese military. The two main Japanese commercial carriers, Japan Airlines and ANA – which initially offered China flight plans – stopped doing so on Wednesday under government pressure.
In Australia, the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said the government had summoned the Chinese ambassador to voice its concerns. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said it had expressed strong dissatisfaction at the “irresponsible” remarks and urged Australia to avoid damaging bilateral relations.
Air defence zones go beyond a country’s national air space and require aircraft to identify themselves. Analysts have said China’s rules do not distinguish between aircraft flying through the zone and those flying towards Chinese airspace. The US has said it does not apply identification procedures to foreign aircraft in its own zone unless they intend to enter US airspace.
US officials said Tuesday’s flight was a long-planned training mission, with the bombers carrying out a round trip from their base in Guam that took them into the zone for less than an hour. Chinese officials said they were there for two hours and 20 minutes.
The state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki ,reiterated the US government’s belief that China’s move was an attempt to change the status quo, which she said would “raise regional tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents”.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Chinese policy was “unnecessarily inflammatory” and destabilising.
Some believe the creation of the zone may backfire by pushing countries in the region closer to the US. “At one fell swoop, Beijing’s decision has injected new problems into its ties with South Korea, Taiwan and the US, further soured relations with Japan, and frightened smaller nations in south-east Asia,” wrote Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in the Asia Times.
“It appears that Xi Jinping, who by all accounts has emerged stronger from the recently held Chinese Communist party third plenum, is willing to fan the flames of nationalism so he can ensure the party’s popularity as he tackles economic reform at home,” Glaser wrote.
Analysts suggest China is initially likely to log what it describes as intrusions – as Japan does – and perhaps gradually step up efforts at enforcement. “The Chinese can now start counting and reporting what they call Japanese violations, while arguing that the Chinese side has shown great restraint by not exercising what they will call China’s right to shoot, and arguing further that China cannot be so patient indefinitely,” Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, told the Associated Press.
The zone covers the airspace over the rocky island chain claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan, which is inhabited only by goats but surrounded by fisheries and other natural resources. They are known as the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.
The row over sovereignty is long-running but escalated last year when Japan bought three of the islets from a private owner, saying it was doing so to prevent nationalists from purchasing them.
China’s weekend announcement may also be in part a response to Japan’s extension of its own zone this spring and its recent warning that it was willing to shoot down unmanned drones it regarded as a threat to its airspace. An unidentified drone was detected near the islands this autumn.
The official People’s Daily website quoted a military expert, Li Jie, as saying the US flights sought to test China’s reaction, to discourage future interference as it continued “reconnaissance, patrolling, and spying on Chinese information” and because it wanted to show that it was still in charge in the Asia-Pacific region.
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