BEIJING – The government branded as “very dangerous” China’s announcement Saturday that it has set up an East China Sea air defense identification zone that includes the Japan-held Senkaku Islands.
The Chinese Defence Ministry said the zone was created to “guard against potential air threats,” but the move will only inflame a bitter sovereignty row over the islets, which China claims as Diaoyu.
Later Saturday, China scrambled air force jets, including fighter planes, to patrol the new zone.
Its outline is shown on the ministry website and a Chinese state media Twitter account — pic.twitter.com/4a2vC6PH8O. It covers a wide area of the East China Sea between South Korea and Taiwan, and includes the Senkaku islets.
In Tokyo, Junichi Ihara, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest by phone with Han Zhiqiang, a minister at the Chinese Embassy, according to a statement issued by the ministry.
Ihara was quoted as telling Han that Japan can “never accept the zone set up by China,” as it includes the Senkakus. He further said the new zone will “escalate” already fraught bilateral ties over the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich islet chain, branding China’s move “very dangerous,” the statement said.
Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki plans to summon Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua as early as possible Monday to state Tokyo’s position on the matter.
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said Saturday that the establishment of the zone, which China said entered into force as of 10 a.m. Saturday, was aimed at “safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order.”
“It is a necessary measure in China’s exercise of self-defense rights. It has no particular target and will not affect the freedom of flight in relevant airspace,” Yang said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
“China will take timely measures to deal with air threats and unidentified flying objects from the sea, including identification, monitoring, control and disposition, and it hopes all relevant sides positively cooperate and jointly maintain flying safety,” he said.
Along with the new zone, the Chinese ministry released a set of aircraft identification rules that it says must be followed by all aircraft entering the area, under penalty of intervention by China’s military.
Aircraft are now expected to provide their flight path, clearly mark their nationality and maintain two-way radio communication in order to “respond in a timely and accurate manner to identification inquiries” from Chinese authorities.
Shen Jinke, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, reported late Saturday that it had conducted a sweep of the area using early warning aircraft and fighter jets. “The patrol is in line with international common practices, and the normal flight of international flights will not be affected,” Shen said.
Four Chinese Coast Guard boats briefly entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus on Friday, after multiple incursions at the end of October and the beginning of this month further aggravated tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in late October said the repeated incursions are a threat to peace and fall in a “gray zone (between) peacetime and an emergency situation.”
A few days earlier, his Chinese counterpart had threatened Japan that any bid to shoot down China’s drones would constitute “an act of war.” That move came after a report said Japan had drafted plans to destroy foreign drones that encroach on its airspace if warnings to leave are ignored.
Sino-Japanese relations have remained icy for more than a year because of the Senkakus dispute, which was revived when Japan purchased three of the five main islets in September 2012, effectively nationalizing the entire chain. Since then, China has regularly sent coast guard vessels to the islets, which lie 400 km west of Okinawa and 200 km northeast of Taiwan.