Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft through a new air-defense zone claimed by China, testing the country’s resolve to control a swath of the East China Sea at the heart of a territorial dispute between the nations.
Japan Air Self-Defense Force planes flew through the area without incident as part of patrols that routinely occurred before China established the zone on Nov. 23, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
“Since China set up its Air Defense Identification Zone, we have been carrying out surveillance activities as usual, including within that zone,” Suga told journalists in Tokyo today.
Tensions are mounting in the region days before Vice President Joe Biden arrives to press Chinese leaders on their intentions with the air zone and to reassure the Japanese government that U.S. will defend the country if needed under their security alliance. China has urged the U.S. to stay out of the dispute, which centers on overlapping claims to a group of uninhabited islands.
China’s establishment of the zone that includes the islands “is a potentially destabilizing unilateral action designed to change the status quo in the region, and raises the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a call yesterday to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, according to an e-mailed statement by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog.
South Korea’s military sent a plane through the area on Nov. 26 on a regular patrol without notifying China, according to a South Korean military official who asked not to be named discussing military operations. South Korea has flown aircraft through the area at least twice each week before the announcement of China’s air zone, and would continue to do so, the official said.
China rejected South Korea’s demand to modify its air zone, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said in a briefing today. South Korea told China it may expand its own air defense zone, Kim said.
The Chinese move also poses a threat to commercial airlines that fly through the region en route to cities across East Asia and raised the specter of Korean Air Lines Co. (003490) flight 007. The plane was shot down by jets of the Soviet Union after inadvertently straying into the country’s airspace, killing the 269 people on board.
China signaled today that it won’t scrutinize commercial aircraft with the same severity as military incursions in the zone. Concerns that air travelers would be at risk rose after Japan told its national carriers not to comply with Chinese demands that they pre-file flight plans before entering the area.
ANA Holdings Inc. (9202) ran 27 flights through the area yesterday without incident. Japan Airlines Co. and Peach Aviation Ltd., a low-fare affiliate of ANA, are also flying through the zone without coordinating with China.
Asked today if airlines need to report their presence, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the zone “is not targeting normal airlines but since we have put out the notice, we hope airlines will actively cooperate.”
Qin’s comments stood in contrast to the Nov. 23 announcement of the zone carried on the official Xinhua News Agency. That report said aircraft flying in the zone “should report flight plans” to the Foreign Ministry or its aviation authority.
“This is one of the most serious challenges ever posed by China to freedom of movement both on the sea and in the sky and will affect very seriously the forward deployment of the United States,” Tomohiko Taniguchi, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said in interview with Bloomberg Television.
The U.S. sent two unarmed B-52 bombers through the disputed zone this week without advance notice. Predicting that the U.S. will continue to send flights through the area, Francois Godement, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations, said, “What they are doing is dropping their business card.”
The perils of in-air confrontations are illustrated by a 2001 incident when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy plane monitoring Chinese communications over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, while the U.S plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. China held its crew of 24 for 11 days before freeing them after the U.S. expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot.
The risk of shots being fired in a Japan-China dispute over the islands is “a no-kidding threat to growth and confidence” in the region, Robert McNally, former senior director for international energy on National Security Council, said in a phone interview yesterday.
The Chinese move has also focused attention on military movements in the area. The HMS Daring, a British aircraft carrier, will make a stop in Tokyo next week on its return from the Philippines where it provided typhoon relief. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, passed through the Taiwan Strait today, Xinhua reported, as it heads for exercises in the South China Sea, scene of a territorial spat with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area.
If China were to attempt a similar defense zone in that area, “that would be a significant problem for all of the claimant states in the South China Sea because there’s this threat that China will control the air space,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in an interview today with ABS-CBN News Channel.
The air defense zone marks the latest escalation between the world’s second and third-largest economies over islands -- known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese -- located in the zone. More than a year since Japan infuriated China by buying some of the islands from a private owner, planes and ships from the two countries have frequently tailed each other in the area.
The U.S. and Japan last month set out a road map for their alliance over the next 20 years, agreeing to revise the guidelines for defense cooperation for the first time since 1997. The U.S. is compelled to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a conflict.
In yesterday’s call, Hagel commended Japan “for exercising appropriate restraint” in response to China’s actions, according to the statement. He reaffirmed the U.S. policy that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty applies to the disputed islands “and pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents.”