GENEVA – The United States said Saturday it was “deeply concerned” and committed to defending Japan after China announced an air zone in the East China Sea that covers disputed islets.
In a move that U.S. ally Japan branded as “very dangerous,” China said it was setting up an “air defense identification zone” over islands administered by Tokyo to “guard against potential air threats.”
In similar statements, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the moves by China, which also scrambled jets to carry out a patrol in the newly declared zone.
“This unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Kerry said.
“Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident,” the top U.S. diplomat said from Geneva, where he was taking part in talks on reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
Kerry said that the United States has urged China to “exercise caution and restraint,” and warned Beijing against implementing its new zone.
“We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing,” Kerry said.
Hagel repeated that the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands — which the Chinese and Taiwanese claim as Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively — are covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, meaning the U.S. would defend its ally if the area is attacked.
“We are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan. We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners,” Hagel said.
The defense chief made clear that the United States, which stations more than 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea, will not respect China’s declaration of control over the zone.
“This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” Hagel said.
The outline of the zone, which is shown on the Chinese Defense Ministry website and a state media Twitter account (pic.twitter.com/4a2vC6PH8O), covers a wide area of the East China Sea between South Korea and Taiwan that includes airspace above the disputed islets.
Japan last year nationalized some of the islets and has vowed not to cede sovereignty or even to acknowledge a dispute with China, accusing its growing neighbor of trying to change the status quo through intimidation.
China and Taiwan both claim the islets, which are near potentially energy-rich waters.
The United States says that it has no position on the islets’ ultimate sovereignty but believes that they are currently under Japanese administration.
“Freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace are essential to prosperity, stability and security in the Pacific,” Kerry said.
He called for a “more collaborative and less confrontational future in the Pacific.”
The U.S. , for its part, does not ask foreign aircraft to identify themselves if they are not intending to enter U.S. airspace.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged a greater focus on Asia in light of China’s rise and plans to shift the majority of U.S. warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
Obama plans to visit Asia, reportedly including Japan, in April. Kerry, who has invested much of his time on the Middle East, will travel to Asia in the coming weeks.