China sends warplanes into East China Sea airzone

China's decision to send in warplanes is likely a bid to enforce the new air-defense zone after the US, Japan and South Korea all flew planes through without any response.

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China has upped the ante in the East China Sea by sending warplanes into its new defense zone, the country's state-run media announced today.

China unexpectedly announced the airzone, which covers territory claimed by several nations in the region, last week, angering Japan, the US, South Korea, and even the European Union.

Air force Spokesman Col. Shen Jinke told the state news agency Xinhua Friday that China dispatched the aircraft Thursday as part of a routine defense measure “in line with international common practices.”

"China's air force is on high alert and will take measures to deal with diverse air threats to firmly protect the security of the country's airspace," he added.

Beijing announcing that all planes traveling through the airzone must identify themselves or face “defensive emergency measures,” angering Japan and South Korea, which both reported Thursday that had defied China by sending aircraft into the zone unannounced this week.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se denounced the airzone, telling the BBC  it had made "already tricky regional situations even more difficult to deal with.”

China's decision to send warplanes into the airzone might be an effort to regain face after failing to actually enforce the zone it had just created.

The events of the past week come amid growing tensions between China and Japan and their claims to disputed islands -- called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan -- since the Japanese government bought three islands in 2012 from a private Japanese owner.

The Christian Science Monitor says Beijing “saw the move as a violation of a longstanding informal agreement to leave the territorial dispute in abeyance pending a possible agreement to jointly exploit any resources, such as oil and gas, which may be discovered in the islands’ vicinity.”

China laid claim to the islands last year with territorial baselines and has dispatched ships into and near Japanese waters almost daily since then. The new airzone raises the stakes. While few see any kind of military clash as imminent, the low-simmering dispute has raised fears of unintentionally inciting an incident.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Thursday in Tokyo, according to local Japanese media, that “Despite China's announcement they have set up an air defense zone, we have carried out routine surveillance and intercept missions over the East China Sea, including the newly declared zone,” Suga said. “The Self-Defense Forces will maintain the flexibility to conduct patrolling operations (in the area) using warring aircraft, destroyers and other vessels when the need arises.”

The US also displayed its disapproval by dispatching two B-52 bombers into the airzone Tuesday, flouting the “rules laid down by China just days before, sending a clear message about US opinion of China's unilateral declaration of sovereignty,” writes The Christian Science Monitor.

The European Union also condemned China's moves. "This development heightens the risk of escalation and contributes to raising tensions in the region," top diplomat Catherine Ashton said in a statement. "The EU calls on all sides to exercise caution and restraint."

China's minimal response to actions flouting the airzone may not continue much longer -- its lack of enforcement has been an "embarrassment," the Associated Press reports.

Some Chinese state media outlets suggested Thursday that Beijing may have mishandled the episodes. "Beijing needs to reform its information release mechanism to win the psychological battles waged by Washington and Tokyo," the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily, said in an editorial.

An analyst told the AP that over time China might gain the upper hand by wearing down the Japanese, with an eye on an eventual change in the status quo. "With regard to activity within the zone, nothing will happen — for a while," June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami, told the AP. "Then the zone will become gradually enforced more strictly. The Japanese will continue to protest, but not much more, to challenge it."

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