U.S. bombers cross China’s claimed air defense zone


Days after China asserted greater military control over a swath of the East China Sea to bolster claims to a cluster of disputed islands, the U.S. defied the move Tuesday as it flew two B-52 bombers through the area.

The U.S. said what it described as a training mission was not flown to respond to China’s latest military maneuver, yet the dramatic flights made clear that the U.S. will not recognize the new territorial claims that Beijing laid out over the weekend.

The two unarmed U.S. B-52 bombers took off from their home base in Guam and flew through China’s newly designated air defense zone, then returned to base, U.S. officials said. The bombers were in the zone for less than an hour, thundering across the Pacific skies during midday there, the officials said, adding that the aircraft encountered no problems.

While the U.S. insisted the training mission was long-planned, it came just days after China issued a map and a new set of rules governing the zone, which includes a cluster of islands that are controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.

U.S. officials would not publicly acknowledge the flights on Tuesday, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said China’s move appeared to be an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea.

“This will raise regional tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents,” she told reporters.

China said Saturday that all aircraft entering the new air defense zone must notify Chinese authorities and are subject to emergency military measures if they do not identify themselves or obey Beijing’s orders. U.S. officials, however, said they have received no reaction to the bomber flights from the Chinese.

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., also rejected it.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not specifically comment Tuesday on the military flights. “It continues to be our view that the policy announced by the Chinese over weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory and has a destabilizing impact on the region,” he told reporters traveling with Obama in Los Angeles.

China’s move to further assert its territorial claims over the islands is not expected to immediately spark confrontations with foreign aircraft. Yet it fits a pattern of putting teeth behind China’s claims and could potentially lead to dangerous encounters depending on how vigorously China enforces it — and how cautious it is when intercepting aircraft from Japan, the U.S. and other countries.

While enforcement is expected to start slowly, Beijing has a record of playing the long game, and analysts say they anticipate a gradual scaling up of activity.

The declaration seems to have flopped as a foreign policy gambit. Analysts say Beijing may have miscalculated the forcefulness and speed with which its neighbors rejected its demands.

At least in the short term, the move undermines Beijing’s drive for regional influence, said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“It doesn’t serve Chinese interests to have tensions with so many neighbors simultaneously,” she said.

Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said China’s enforcement will likely be mostly rhetorical at first.

“The Chinese can now start counting and reporting what they call Japanese violations, while arguing that the Chinese side has shown great restraint by not exercising what they will call China’s right to shoot, and arguing further that China cannot be so patient indefinitely,” Roy said.

China also faces practical difficulties deriving from gaps in its air-to-air refueling and early warning and control capabilities, presenting challenges in both detecting foreign aircraft and keeping its planes in the air, according to Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore.

Despite that, Beijing has shown no sign of backing down, just as it has continued to aggressively enforce its island claims in the South China Sea over the strong protests from its neighbors.

Tensions remain high with Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku by Japan and Daioyu by China. Beijing was incensed by Japan’s September 2012 move to nationalize the chain, and Diaoyutai by Taiwan, which also claims them.

Since then, Chinese and Japanese coast guard ships have regularly confronted each other in surrounding waters. Japan further angered Beijing last month by threatening to shoot down unmanned Chinese drones that Beijing says it plans to send on surveillance missions over the islands.

Beijing’s move was greeted rapturously by hard-line Chinese nationalists, underscoring Beijing’s need to assuage the most vocal facet of domestic public opinion. Strategically, it also serves to keep the island controversy alive in service of Beijing’s goal of forcing Tokyo to accept that the islands are in dispute — a possible first step to joint administration or unilateral Chinese control over them.

Beijing was also responding in kind to Japan’s strict enforcement of its own air defense zone in the East China Sea, said Dennis Blasko, an Asia analyst at think tank CNA’s China Security Affairs Group and a former army attache in Beijing.

The Japanese zone, in place since the 1960s, overlaps extensively with the newly announced Chinese zone. Japan, which keeps a public record of all foreign incursions into its zone, actually extended it westward by 14 miles (22.5 km) in May.

  • Tyler Chester

    Good. China has no right to claim “new” airspace without consulting other nations in the region. Our mission is protect and defend Japan at all costs. The United States stands with Japan.

    • kension86

      Several months ago, a certain country unilaterally expanded its ADIZ into Taiwan’s ADIZ without consulting Taiwan.

      Hint: that certain country was not China.

  • PulSamsara

    ” and spent less than an hour in the Chinese zone”

    irresponsible phrasing. Don’t reinforce the Chinese nonsense. They flights were certainly NOT through any ‘Chinese zone’.

  • Christopher Glen

    The US needs to make Japan sit down with China, recognise there is a dispute, and find a compromise to the situation. China has only set up its special air zone because Japan refuses to sit down and talk.
    And Tyler, why don’t you ask the people of Okinawa if they are ok with your bases remaining there for the next 100 years?

    • Steve Novosel

      “China has only set up its special air zone because Japan refuses to sit down and talk.”

      That’s a quite distorted view. China seized a large zone of international airspace as it’s own because Japan refused to talk? You can see the world’s response to that point of view. It was forceful and it was immediate.

      China needs to stop playing these little games with everyone else in the region. Their non-reaction to the US overflight speaks volumes.

    • Franz Pichler

      I guess there’s nothing to talk about, the islands are Japanese. Japan already offered to exploit any eventual resources together with China but China refused. China is claiming the whole sea all the way down to Vietnam as their zone of influence so there’s no way to try to appease its way out of this problem. Only by standing firm China might back down. China is in a terrible mess, behind the facade of “new powerhouse” the reality is very different, over a billion people of which 800 million below the poverty line (the real poverty line) , arable land vanishing quickly or already poisoned, freshwater resources already not enough to supply the whole population, food idem, and the biggest problem of all and to which all others are directly or indirectly connected, China has no energy of its own and needs desperately, yes desperately, to get its hand on new resources. Now with overconsumption and peak ROI oil bringing the economy to its knees what we’re seeing is that the there’s no time for chatting. Hopefully not but very soon arms will start talking, all because of food, water and energy. The USA will not back down and luckily we’ve a strong nationalist government in Japan that will also not back down. By the way South Corea and Taiwan are with the USA and Japan on this one…. so, terrible times lie ahead of us….

    • Tyler Chester

      This is a power play by the Chinese, the U.S. and other Asian nations have been using the airspace without any issues for years. China comes along and claims it? Pfffttt… please.

      • Christopher Glen

        Did you even read the link?

  • Steel Man

    The mouse that roared. The islands are so far away from China the only reason the Chinese know the B-52s overflew the zone is that the Americans issued a press release.

  • Khai

    The United States stood with South Vietnam too back then …. Where are they now?

    • koedo

      Completely different situation.

  • C.J. Bunny

    All pretty silly. While the airlines will pass on their flight plans without hassle, there is no way USAF are going file flight plans with China. China is surely not so daft as to to act aggressively to USAF in this area, so declaring this zone is rather pointless except to stir up tension.

    • Christopher Glen

      If the US keep doing flights, then China will be forced to do something to save face with their people. As is the nature of totalitarian regimes

      • C.J. Bunny

        Both ANA and JAL are also now ignoring China’s
        demands. JASDF and South Korea are also operating flights as normal and Australia has joined in
        with the objections. China’s bluff has been called and there’s not a lot they can do without opening themselves to some serious retaliation.

      • Christopher Glen

        Shame, Abe is only making the situation worse

  • LK312

    Good old B-52 diplomacy. They’re so large and loud that not even the Communist Party bosses can’t miss the US message to China: “In case you were wondering, we really DO mean it when we say that we will defend our ally, Japan.”

    • Christopher Glen

      Japan and China really do need to sit down and talk things over on this one

      • C.J. Bunny

        You keep saying this. But as other have explained, it doesn’t make any sense. What would you like them to talk about that they haven’t already?

      • koedo

        It’s this simple. China does not play by international standards. This has been shown and proven again and again. Whether we talk about economic issues, monetary manipulation, patent laws, intellectual rights or territorial disputes. China believes the rules are for suckers and if you can take it or steal it, well, it’s quicker and more expedient.

      • Christopher Glen

        Is Japan much better?

      • Christopher Glen

        It’s this simple. Japan does not play by international standards. This has been shown and proven again and again. Whether we talk about economic issues, monetary manipulation, patent laws, intellectual rights or territorial disputes. Japan believes the rules are for suckers and if you can take it or steal it, well, it’s quicker and more expedient.

  • Steven Zahl

    China, the Paper Tiger blinks!

  • Franz Pichler

    Japan has aplogized many times, paid its fair share in reparations, invests heavily in CHina and we could go on an on. Come on, China just tries to suck as long as it can. Give me a break! Who’s the danger here?! The Abe government is right. Japan needs also its nukes!

    • Christopher Glen

      I`m not sure what planet you`re living on.

  • Franz Pichler

    Maybe you miss the point, Japan has all along said that they want to sit down and talk. It’s not in China’s interes to talk, it’s in their interest to keep things on heat….

    • Christopher Glen

      Rather the opposite, as this document shows http://japanfocus.org/-Gavan-McCormack/3947

    • Christopher Glen

      Rather the opposite, it`s in Shinzo Abe`s best interest to keep things on heat so he can push his conservative agenda

  • Christopher Glen

    And this link shows there is more to the dispute than you think http://japanfocus.org/-Gavan-McCormack/3947