The U.S. and Japanese governments’ split over how commercial airlines should operate in China’s self-declared air-defense zone has put carriers at the center of an escalating political dispute.
The U.S. State Department has urged airlines to notify Chinese authorities before flying through the zone, while Japan pressed its carriers to stop supplying such flight data. China created the zone over an area that includes islands in the East China Sea claimed by both the Asian nations.
Tension over territorial disputes with neighbors has in the past drawn Japan closer to the U.S., which maintains troops and airbases around the archipelago. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will seek clarification from Chinese leaders on their intentions in imposing the zone when he visits Japan, China and South Korea this week.
“Policy execution based on cooperation between Japan and the U.S. is the most important thing, especially for the aviation industry,” said Haruo Ushiba, a director at Japan Aviation Management Research in Tokyo. “This rare crack in the U.S.-Japan alliance must be carefully examined.”
ANA Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines Co. have stopped sharing flight plans with Chinese authorities after earlier agreeing to do so as Japan denounced China’s move.
The U.S. advisory to carriers came as Japan raised the dispute over the zone at a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal. A Japanese government representative told the UN agency that the zone could threaten the order and safety of international aviation and requested a review, according to the country’s foreign ministry.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters yesterday that he would discuss the government’s response to the new Chinese air-defense zone with Biden, Kyodo News reported.
United Continental Holdings Inc., the biggest U.S. carrier, will continue its usual policy of sharing flight data with China, according to Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based airline. American Airlines is also complying with the Chinese requirement, spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said.
“Airlines usually act with an abundance of caution,” Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel analyst at Hudson Crossing, said in a telephone interview. “They are not ever going to take anything that’s going to put their passengers, crew or equipment at risk.”
ANA said it was maintaining its policy of not informing Chinese authorities while flying through the new defense zone, spokesman Ryosei Nomura said by telephone today. The carrier will reconsider its position if urged by the Japanese government to do so, he said.
The State Department’s notice emerged hours after the U.S. military disclosed that it has been flying daily through the disputed area without providing notice to China’s authorities. That disclosure Nov. 29 by a U.S. defense official indicates that U.S. flight activity in the area, where China has sought to exert control, is more extensive than was previously known.
“It’s very important the U.S. signal to the Chinese that we’re not going to be bullied and that we’re going to adhere to our commitments,” which include a defense treaty with Japan, said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008.
The Pentagon had acknowledged a flight by two unarmed B-52 bombers through the air zone last week. The defense official, who asked not to be named discussing military operations, wouldn’t specify the type of aircraft used in subsequent flights or say whether any of them are armed.
China for a second day Nov. 29 sent fighter planes into the air zone. The situation “holds the real potential for a crisis,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
China’s “provocative” behavior toward its neighbors in the region “now becomes a very prominent issue for the visit,” said Burns, who’s now a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Biden will convey U.S. concerns about China’s air zone and seek clarification from Chinese leaders on their intentions, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because the talks will be private.
Biden is “well-positioned to play a calming role hopefully to defuse this crisis, in a way that is supportive of our primary friend, the government of Japan,” Burns said in an interview.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo today that the U.S. “doesn’t accept China’s demands on the area.” He also said there is no change in the government’s decision to forbid airlines from providing flight data.
“We will continue to work closely with the U.S. and have discussions as Biden arrives in Japan today,” Suga said.
China announced the air-defense identification zone effective Nov. 23 and said its military will take “defensive emergency measures” if aircraft enter the area without reporting flight plans or otherwise identifying themselves.
Japan and South Korea also have flown military aircraft through the air zone in recent days, testing China’s resolve to control a swath of the East China Sea that is central to a territorial dispute.
South Korea advised its domestic carriers to stick with current practice as the government doesn’t accept China’s zone, Yonhap News reported yesterday, citing an official at the transport ministry.
Japan and China both claim sovereignty over islands known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called China’s air zone “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and warned that it “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”
The U.S. and Japan will issue a joint statement after Abe and Biden meet this week that calls on China to retract the zone, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, without citing a source. The statement will call the zone a dangerous experiment that unilaterally changes the situation in the East China Sea, the newspaper reported.
Japan and the U.S. also plan to step up air surveillance in the East China Sea, with Japan stationing E-2C airborne early-warning aircraft at the Naha base in the Okinawa region and expanding the use of unmanned Global Hawk aircraft, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Nov. 29, without citing a source.
South Korea is considering expanding its own air-defense zone in response to China’s move, Wee Yong Sub, spokesman for the Defense Ministry said in Seoul.
“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 Japan’s Abe, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
The State Department last month recommended that U.S. carriers take all steps they consider necessary for safe operation in the zone.
“We are filing our flight plans with China as we normally do,” United’s McCarthy said in an e-mail last week.
Hagel called Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera last week to assure the U.S. ally of its support. Hagel praised Japan “for exercising appropriate restraint” and “pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents,” according to a Pentagon statement.