Air Chess: China Patrols Air Zone Over Disputed Islands

A Japanese patrol plane, pictured in 2011, flying over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

A Japanese patrol plane, pictured in 2011, flying over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan Pool, via Jiji Press

BEIJING — Jane Perlez and Martin Fackler report:  China sent fighter jets on the first patrols of its new air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea on Thursday, the state news agency, Xinhua, said.

The patrols followed announcements by Japan and South Korea that their military planes had flown through the zone unhindered by China.

The tit-for-tat flights between China on one side and South Korea and Japan on the other heightened the tensions over the East China Sea where China and Japan are at loggerheads over islands they both claim.

The airspace in the new zone announced by China last week overlaps a similar zone declared by Japan more than 40 years ago. Both zones are over the islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

China has said that noncommercial aircraft entering the zone without prior notification would face “defensive emergency measures.”

China would take “relevant measures according to different air threats” to defend the country’s airspace, Xinhua reported.

In a direct challenge to earlier threats by China that it could take military action against foreign aircraft entering the zone, the United States sent two unarmed B-52 bombers to fly through the airspace for more than two hours overnight Monday. The Chinese military said it had monitored the flight path of the American planes, and China appeared to backpedal from its initial threats of action.

In an unusually strong editorial in English, Global Times, a newspaper that often strikes a nationalist tone, said in Friday’s editions: “Maybe an imminent conflict will be waged between China and Japan. Our ultimate goal is to beat its willpower and ambition to institute strategic confrontation against China.”

Elsewhere, the paper said that the United States was not the target of the new zone.

Responding to the situation, the State Department said, “We have urged the Chinese to exercise caution and restraint, and we are consulting with Japan and other affected parties throughout the region.”

Analysts have said that China’s declaration of the new zone is meant to whittle away at Japan’s hold on the islands. But the unexpected move is also seen as another attempt by an increasingly assertive China to establish itself as the dominant regional power, displacing the United States.

China had seemed to be stepping back this week from its original harsh tone, when it said aircraft entering the airspace needed to file flight plans in advance or face the possibility of military action. On Wednesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China would decide on a case-by-case basis how strongly to respond to those who break its rules.

In a further clarification of its original stance, the People’s Liberation Army said Thursday that the new air zone was “not a territorial airspace” and did not mean that China would take immediate military action against aircraft that entered the zone.

At a monthly briefing for Chinese reporters, a spokesman, Yang Yujun, said it was “incorrect” to suggest China would shoot down planes in the zone. On Thursday, Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said that the Chinese had not been notified of the Japanese flights, and reported that China had not scrambled its fighter jets to intercept them.

The South Korean government announced that it, too, had flown aircraft through the zone without alerting Beijing. Chinese officials said they had monitored the flight by what the South Koreans described as a surveillance aircraft. Like Japan, South Korea claims sovereignty over some territory in seas beneath the airspace, but Seoul enjoys warmer ties with Beijing than does Tokyo.

During a previously scheduled defense meeting on Thursday, South Korea asked China to change the boundaries of the new zone, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency. But China rejected the request, said a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, Kim Min-seok, according to the Yonhap report.

Jane Perlez reported from Beijing, and Martin Fackler from Tokyo. Gerry Mullany contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Robert Pear from Washington.

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