American B-52s flout China's newly declared airspace

Beijing wants to change the status quo in the East China Sea. US officials think it unlikely that China will challenge military flights. 

By , Staff writer

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    In this 2007 file photo, a B-52 passes overhead at the National Security Forum air demonstration at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
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The US flew two B-52 bombers through the East China Sea Tuesday, taking them through China's recently declared air defense zone. The move flouted rules laid down by China just days before, sending a clear message about US opinion of China's unilateral declaration of sovereignty.

China this weekend declared the airspace above disputed East China Sea islands as part of an "air defense identification zone" and said planes traveling through it must notify Chinese authorities. The US sent no notification of the B-52 flights, which were part of a scheduled military exercise, according to The Wall Street Journal. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misnamed the East China Sea.

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In its first public comment on the incident today, the Chinese defense ministry told The Wall Street Journal that it had identified and monitored the US aircraft, as it would do with every flight into the air zone, and warned that it had the capability to impose "effective control" on the area. A Chinese foreign ministry statement today further clarified that its new policy does not restrict the right of others to fly through the area. 

The air zone lies over a group of islands claimed by both China and Japan, known in China as the Diaoyu and Japan as the Senkaku. Japan already claims the airspace.

The declaration of the air zone is perceived as an effort by Beijing to boost its claim to sovereignty of the islands – and is part of a larger bid to change the status quo in the East China Sea by making the issue a live dispute and eventually making it difficult or prohibitive for Japan to claim the territory. 

US officials told The Wall Street Journal that "they had to challenge the air-defense zone to make clear they don't consider its establishment appropriate or in the interest of regional stability."

US officials stressed that both the exercise and flight path were long planned. A senior defense official said that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was briefed on the exercise, had made clear over the weekend that the U.S. should continue to fly over the islands.

There was little debate in the Pentagon about canceling the exercise or adjusting its flight path. Changing the exercise, the official said, would make it appear that Mr. Hagel was backing down and that the U.S. was acquiescing to the new zone.

US defense officials said there would be further military exercises in the area, and acknowledged it is possible that China could attempt to contact or intercept the aircraft involved in future flights.

Officials said the military's Pacific Command routinely prepares for contingencies, but that planners didn't think it was likely that China would attempt to challenge the flight.

US military planes often ignore the air-defense zones of non-allied countries, and frequently respond to any radio hail by asserting the right to operate in an international air space.

China made no attempt to contact the aircraft. The foreign ministry said today that its lack of action was "in accordance" with the defense ministry's guidelines and that the response would depend on "how big the threat was," The New York Times reports. Japan also flouted China's newly asserted air zone guidelines today by flying civilian commercial aircraft through the zone without identifying them, in a reversal of a position taken a few days back. 

Naval expert Zhang Junshe told state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua that "the establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone is not related to the situations around the Diaoyu Islands and should not be considered a countermeasure against Japan," adding that it was necessary to protect "sovereignty and security," and "common international practice," and was borne out of self-defense. 

There is little risk of conflict over such moves, a Japanese analyst told The Christian Science Monitor. 

[A] clash isn't likely, he adds. “China’s intention is not to show its military strength or to spark a conflict, but to underline its sovereignty” over the disputed islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.

That is a view shared by a senior Japanese military analyst, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Both sides want to avoid an incident around the Senkakus,” he says. “Both militaries have been very, very careful about not going into each others’ air or sea space” since the dispute broke out in September last year, deploying civilian proxies such as Coast Guard vessels instead, he points out.

But with both sides claiming the right to monitor aircraft in an overlapping zone, and to scramble fighters to deal with unidentified craft, accidents are more likely. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned Saturday that China’s declaration of an ADIZ “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”

Japan has no intention of validating China's unilateral claim, the Monitor reports, because the Japanese increasingly see China's pressure in the East China Sea as a "test of their determination." Standing down on one issue could lead to a cascade of similar moves. To acquiesce to China's demands for identification when flying through the area would "sound as if we admit their claim" to the territory, the Japanese analyst said.

An impending trip to China, Japan, and South Korea by Vice President Joe Biden was meant to focus on economic issues, but will now likely be "consumed by fallout" from the air defense zone, The New York Times reports. A senior Chinese analyst, Shi Yinhong, said that it presented a "test of wills" between the US and China, which already has fraught relations with many of the countries in the region as well as the US.

But most of all, Mr. Biden will now be faced with the reality of Beijing’s determination to show what kind of major power relationship it wants with the United States, namely one in which China is regarded as an equal.

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But Mr. Shi defended the new air zone as an expression of China’s determination to be regarded as a great power.

“This is the first time since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that it has expanded its strategic space beyond offshore waters,” he said.

That expansion of China’s strategic area provoked the United States to fly the two B-52 bombers through the new air zone without warning Beijing, he said.

“That’s why Washington made such a harsh and firm reaction,” he said. “This represents America saying ‘no’ to China’s aspiration in the western Pacific.”

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