China sent several fighter jets and an early warning aircraft into its new air defense zone over the East China Sea, state news agency Xinhua said yesterday, raising the stakes in a standoff with the US, Japan and South Korea.
Japan and South Korea also flew military aircraft through the zone, the two countries said on Thursday, while Washington sent two unarmed B-52s into the airspace earlier this week in a sign of support for its ally Japan. None of those aircraft informed China.
China last week announced that foreign aircraft passing through its new air defense zone — including passenger planes — would have to identify themselves to Chinese authorities. The zone includes the skies over islands at the heart of a territorial dispute between Japan and China.
The Chinese patrol mission, conducted on Thursday, was “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices,” Xinhua cited air force spokesman Shen Jinke (沈金科) as saying.
The aircraft, including Russian-designed Su-30 fighter jets, conducted routine patrols and monitored targets in the zone, Shen said.
“China’s air force is on high alert and will take measures to deal with diverse air threats to firmly protect the security of the country’s airspace,” he said.
However, Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesman Yang Yujun (楊宇軍) said it was “incorrect” to suggest China would shoot down aircraft which entered the zone without first identifying themselves. He did not elaborate.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga yesterday said he did not know if Chinese planes were in the zone, but added that there was no change to Japan’s sense of alertness.
Ties between China and Japan have been strained for months by the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea, called the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) by China and the Senkakus by Japan.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said the union is concerned about China’s decision to establish the new air defense zone as well as its announcement of “emergency defense measures” if other parties do not comply.
“This development heightens the risk of escalation and contributes to raising tensions in the region,” Ashton said in a statement. “The EU calls on all sides to exercise caution and restraint.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) criticized Ashton’s remarks, saying China hoped the EU could treat the situation “objectively and rationally.”
“Actually, Madam Ashton should know that some European countries also have air defense identification zones,” Qin said. “I don’t know if this leads to tensions in the European regional situation. European countries can have air defense identification zones. Why can’t China?”
When asked to clarify China’s expectations for what information airlines were expected to report, Qin said: “International law does not have clear rules on what kind of flight or airplane should apply,” adding that each country makes its own rules.
“Therefore, China’s method does not violate international law and accords with international practice,” Qin said.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday that since the zone came into force, there had been no impact on the safe operation of international civilian flights, although it added that China “hoped” airlines would cooperate.
Japan’s two biggest airlines have defied the identification order since Wednesday at the request of the Japanese government.
Although there are risks of a confrontation in the zone, US and Chinese military officials have stepped up communication with each other in recent years and are in regular contact to avoid accidental clashes.
US Vice President Joe Biden will be visiting China, Japan and South Korea next week, and will try to ease tension over the issue, senior US administration officials said.
“We decline to comment on Chinese flights, but the United States will continue to partner with our allies and operate in the area as normal,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
China’s Ministry of National Defense has said that it was aware of the US, Japanese and South Korean military aircraft in the zone and had tracked them all.
In a show of support to the military, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) visited a base in Jinan in eastern China, where he said “military training is critical to beef up the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] war capacities,” Xinhua reported.
Xi did not make direct mention of the East China Sea air defense zone.