WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it had defied Beijing by flying two warplanes over the East China Sea on a training exercise, ignoring a recent edict from China that it be informed in advance of any such flights in the region.
Pentagon officials said they deployed two unarmed B-52 bombers late Monday over a small island chain that China and Japan both claim as their territory. Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a military spokesman, described the flights as “uneventful” and said they were part of a previously scheduled training mission.
The U.S. mission took place between about midnight Monday and 3 a.m. EST, the officials said. Crosson said there was “no contact, no reaction from China.”
Pentagon officials said the flights were intended to send a clear message to Beijing that Washington would not permit China to restrict freedom of movement in international airspace or waterways. In addition to its dispute with Japan, China is engaged in spats with other U.S. allies in Asia, fueling political tension as all sides vie for strategically important territory.
On Wednesday, the Chinese Defense Ministry said it had “monitored” the bomber flights, in an assertion of Beijing’s authority that stopped short of threatening direct action.
In a statement, Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said: “The Chinese military monitored the entire process, carried out identification in a timely manner, and ascertained the type of U.S. aircraft. China is capable of exercising effective control over this airspace.”
The statement, China’s first official response to the U.S. action, did not include any expression of regret or anger at the flight, and appeared to be relatively non-confrontational, while reiterating Beijing’s claim of control.
Nevertheless, the airspace fight threatens to cloud a planned trip by Vice President Joe Biden to Beijing next week. Biden is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in between visits to Japan and South Korea.
China on Saturday declared that it had imposed an air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea and the uninhabited islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The Chinese Defense Ministry warned that any aircraft entering the zone would need to submit flight plans in advance and maintain radio contact with Chinese authorities or else face unspecified “defensive emergency measures.”
The United States has a mutual defense treaty with Japan and has pledged to aid Tokyo if a military conflict over the islands erupts. The territorial dispute has escalated since last year, when Tokyo purchased three of the islands from a private Japanese landowner. Subsequently, both countries have sent patrol ships into the contested waters to stake their ownership and spy on each other.
Numerous countries, including the United States and Japan, have their own air defense identification zones.
The ADIZs are established to help nations monitor aircraft nearing their territories, but in this case the zones of Japan and China overlap.
Japan and the United States immediately protested the move. The Pentagon, which frequently conducts naval and air exercises in the East China Sea, said Saturday that it had no intention of bowing to China’s demands, calling them a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”
Less than 48 hours later, the long-range B-52 bombers took off from a military base on Guam and spent about an hour in the disputed zone before returning to the U.S. territory in the Pacific.
The bomber mission underscores Washington’s immediate rejection of China’s new rules. The U.S., which has hundreds of military aircraft based in the region, has said it has zero intention of complying. Japan likewise has called the zone invalid, unenforceable and dangerous, while Taiwan and South Korea, both close to the U.S., have also rejected it.
On Tuesday, the White House criticized China’s imposition of the ADIZ but urged Beijing to address territorial conflicts diplomatically instead of militarily.
“We believe that inflammatory rhetoric and inflammatory policy pronouncements like those made by the Chinese over the weekend are counterproductive, and we believe that those differences of opinion can and should be resolved diplomatically. It’s in the interest of all of the parties in the region to do that,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.