BEIJING/SEOUL – China said Thursday it had sent warplanes to patrol its newly declared maritime air defense identification zone as a dispute over an island chain racheted up into a dangerous regional standoff.
The move came after Japan and South Korea announced the same day that they had sent surveillance aircraft of their own into the area over the East China Sea. The United States has joined many of China’s neighbors in condemning its decision Saturday to establish the zone and defied Beijing by flying two B-52 bombers through the area Tuesday.
A Chinese Air Force spokesman, Col. Shen Jinke, said several fighter jets and an early warning aircraft had been sent on “defensive” air patrols in the ADIZ to “strengthen the monitoring of aerial targets,” following an earlier patrol shortly after the zone was announced, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
On Friday, Chinese state-run media identified Japan as the “prime target” in the ADIZ, calling for “timely countermeasures without hesitation” if Tokyo defies it. But other countries that have sent military aircraft into the zone, including the United States and South Korea, should be largely ignored, the Global Times said in an editorial headlined “Japan prime target of ADIZ tussle.”
“We should carry out timely countermeasures without hesitation against Japan when it challenges China’s newly declared ADIZ,” the paper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, said. “If the U.S. does not go too far, we will not target it in safeguarding our air defense zone. . . . What we should do at present is firmly counter provocative actions from Japan.”
In announcing the zone’s establishment, China had warned that any noncommercial aircraft entering it without notice could face “defensive emergency measures.” Concern immediately surfaced because it overlapped similar zones operated by Japan and South Korea, encompassing islands controlled by those countries but claimed by China.
But in a sign of the mixed signals emanating from Beijing this week, a Defense Ministry spokesman said in response to a question that it was “incorrect” to say that countries had the right to shoot down unidentified planes entering air defense identification zones.
Such zones were neither “no-fly zones” nor territorial airspace, Col. Yang Yujun told a news conference, but were simply meant to give nations time to react to possible threats.
Experts say China’s decision to unilaterally establish the zone inflamed an already tense situation and raised the possibility of military conflict, including over the Japan-held Senkaku Islands. The latest flights intensify the game of dare being played above Asia’s contested maritime territory.
“Thus far, Beijing has defined its new ADIZ in a categorical manner that ignores the complexities and risks involved,” said Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
“It is to be hoped that Beijing will choose to exercise restraint and allay concerns by its neighbors and other users of the international airspace in question by offering specific clarifications and reassurances,” Erickson said. “Otherwise, suspicions will grow that the ‘new type of great power relations’ Beijing promotes is merely intended to signal that others should yield to a rising China’s principled positions.”
Analysts say China established the zone to bolster its claims to the Senkakus, a chain of tiny, rocky islands in the East China Sea, to strengthen its hand in any future negotiations and to match its rival’s own ADIZ, established in 1969.
In Beijing, it was also seen as a response to Japan’s threat, made in September, to shoot down any Chinese drones that flew above the Senkakus on mapping missions.
Yang, the Defense Ministry spokesman, criticized Japan for its decision to purchase several of the disputed islets from a private landowner last year and complained that its warships had also interrupted Chinese military maneuvers in international waters in October.
“So who is changing the status quo unilaterally? Who intensified tensions in the region? Who intensified contradictions unceasingly? And who is undermining regional security?” he asked.
But analysts said China’s decision to establish the zone could have backfired, uniting several of its neighbors in condemnation and providing the United States a perfect opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to ensuring stability in the Asia-Pacific region with its fly-through of two unarmed B-52 warplanes Tuesday.
Beijing reacted calmly to the U.S. challenge, simply noting that it had identified and monitored the American aircraft. That response drew criticism from citizens on Chinese micro-blogging sites, and even from state news media.
“Beijing needs to reform its information-release mechanism to win the psychological battles waged by Washington and Tokyo,” the The Global Times said in an editorial.
Masaru Sato, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tokyo, said Thursday that turboprop patrol planes operated by the Self-Defense Forces have been conducting routine flights in China’s ADIZ since its declaration Saturday without notifying Beijing.
In Tokyo, the Defense Ministry did not confirm the flights but one official, requesting anonymity to describe the situation, said that the SDF is “conducting the same monitoring activity as before, and we will not change or restrict such activities.”