Japanese and South Korean military aircraft flew through disputed airspace over the East China Sea without informing China, officials said yesterday, challenging a new Chinese air zone that has increased regional tensions and sparked concerns of an unintended clash.
The move came after Tokyo’s close ally Washington defied China’s demand that airplanes flying through its unilaterally announced zone identify themselves to Chinese authorities, flying two unarmed B-52s over the islands on Tuesday without informing Beijing.
Tensions have ratcheted up since Beijing’s announcement on Saturday of the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that includes the skies over islands at the heart of a feud between Japan and China, and its demand that planes flying in the area notify Chinese authorities.
Japan and the US have sharply criticized the move, which some experts said was aimed not only at chipping away at Tokyo’s control of the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu (釣魚) in China, but also at challenging US dominance in the region. Taiwan also claims the islands, which it calls the Diaoyutais (釣魚台).
The US does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands, but recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control and has assured Japan that a bilateral security agreement covers them.
The developments are expected to dominate US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan, China and South Korea next week.
China yesterday also rejected South Korea’s demand for the repeal of the zone, but appeared to soften its demand that commercial aircraft tell its military authorities of any plans to transit the area. Japan’s two biggest airlines have already begun defying that order.
“The East China Sea air defense identification zone is not aimed at normal international flights. We hope that relevant countries’ airlines can proactively cooperate, so there is more order and safety for flights,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) told reporters.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said naval ships and patrol planes have been operating in the East China Sea and would continue to do so.
“They are carrying out surveillance activity as before in the East China Sea, including the zone,” Suga told a news conference, adding there has been no particular response from China. “We are not going to change this [activity] out of consideration to China.”
A South Korean official also said a navy reconnaissance plane had flown over a submerged rock in the area claimed by both Beijing and Seoul, and that the flights would continue.
The rock, called Ieodo in South Korea and the Suyan Rock (苏岩礁) in China, is controlled by Seoul.
Asked about the South Korean flight, Qin only said that Beijing was aware of it.
South Korea’s reaction to Beijing’s weekend declaration had been somewhat muted, reflecting its efforts to forge closer ties with China and a chill in relations with Japan.
However, South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo yesterday told a senior Chinese military official that the move to impose the new rules created military tension in the region and called on Beijing to rectify the zone
“The Chinese reaction was that they will not be accepting the [South] Korean side’s demand,” South Korean defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters after talks between Baek and Wang Guanzhong (王冠中), deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
The Philippines also rejected China’s newly declared air defense zone in the East China Sea as infringing on the freedom to fly in international airspace and compromising the safety of civil aviation.
Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said China’s ADIZ threatens the national security of affected states and “transforms the entire air zone” into China’s “domestic airspace.”