China yesterday said it let two US B-52 bombers fly unhindered through its newly declared air defense zone in the East China Sea on Tuesday, despite its earlier threat to take defensive measures against unidentified foreign aircraft.
The US flights, which tested the Chinese zone for the first time since it was declared on Saturday, raised questions about Beijing’s determination to enforce its requirement that foreign aircraft identify themselves and accept Chinese instructions. China’s lack of any action suggested that it was merely playing out a diplomatic game to establish ownership over the area rather than provoke an international incident.
The flights followed days of angry rhetoric and accusations over Beijing’s move, designed to assert Chinese claims to a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan.
The US and Japan have said they do not acknowledge the zone, and Taiwan and South Korea have also rejected it.
A Chinese Ministry of National Defense statement said the US planes were detected and monitored as they flew through the area for 2 hours and 22 minutes. It said all aircraft flying through the zone would be monitored and that “China has the capability to exercise effective control over the relevant airspace.”
Asked repeatedly about the incident at a regularly scheduled briefing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said it had been handled according to procedures laid out in the Saturday statement, but offered no specifics.
“Different situations will be dealt with according to that statement,” Qin said.
The US, which has hundreds of military aircraft based in the region, described the flights as a training mission unrelated to China’s announcement of the zone.
US officials said the two unarmed B-52 bombers took off from their home base in Guam around midday and were in the zone that encompasses the disputed islands for less than an hour before returning to their base, adding that the aircraft encountered no problems.
The bomber flights came after US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said China’s move appeared to be an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea.
“This will raise regional tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents,” she told reporters.
Beijing’s move fits a pattern of putting teeth behind its territorial claims and is seen as potentially leading to dangerous encounters depending on how vigorously China enforces it — and how cautious it is when intercepting aircraft from Japan, the US and other countries.
Chinese reaction to the US bomber flights was predictably angry, with some recalling the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a US surveillance plane in international airspace off China’s southeastern coast — the kind of accident some fear China’s new policy could make more likely.
The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei (王偉), was killed in the crash and the US crew forced to make a landing on Hainan island, where they were held for 10 days and repeatedly interrogated before being released.
“Let’s not repeat the humiliation of Wang Wei. Make good preparations to counterattack,” wrote Zheng Daojin (鄭道錦), a reporter with Xinhua news agency on his Weibo microblog.
Others criticized the government’s handling of what they termed a battle of psychological pressure and international public opinion.
“China is terrible at telling its side of the story. The silent one is the loser so why don’t they better explain our response to the American bomber flight,” wrote Hu Xijin (胡錫進), editor of the state-run Global Times, on his blog.
Chinese academics, who often serve as ad-hoc government spokesmen, criticized Tuesday’s flights as a crude show of force and said Beijing was not looking for a fight.
“It’s not that China didn’t want to enforce its demands, but how do you expect China to react?” said Zhu Feng (朱鋒), an international security expert at Peking University.