U.S.-China Air Zone Interactions Professional, Locklear Says

China’s declaration of an air identification zone in the East China Sea hasn’t led to a “significant” increase in interactions between its forces and U.S. military planes flying in the area, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said.

There continues to be “professional” interactions between the two sides in the zone, Admiral Samuel Locklear said on a conference call with reporters today. The U.S. does not recognize the zone and hasn’t changed its operations in the area, he said.

Tensions between Japan, a U.S. ally, and China escalated in November when China established the air defense zone in the East China Sea, demanding civil and military aircraft present flight plans to its authorities before entering the space. China has urged the U.S. to stay out of the dispute, which centers on overlapping claims to a group of uninhabited islands now covered by China’s air zone.

“We haven’t seen a significant change in those interactions since the establishment, or the reported establishment, of the air defense zone by the Chinese,” Locklear said. “So the good news is that military forces are acting professionally as we interact in these areas.”

Protests broke out in China in late 2012 after the Japanese government bought some of the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from a private owner. In December, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe roiled relations further by visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japanese war dead including 14 World War II military leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals.

Joint Drills

A Chinese vessel cut in front of the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser from a distance of 100 yards in the South China Sea on Dec. 5, an incident U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was “unhelpful” and “irresponsible.”

The U.S. and China will continue to pursue opportunities to develop military relations and the U.S. has invited the Chinese Navy to participate alongside about 20 countries in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise this summer in Hawaii, according to Locklear.

“I have it on good authority that they’re coming,” and India is also considering participating, said Locklear. “These are confidence-building military measures that help us prevent miscalculation and help us to move forward peacefully.”

In Japan, Abe has set up a National Security Council modeled on the NSC in the U.S. to better coordinate policy and is considering reinterpreting the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to be able to more freely deploy the country’s defense forces. U.S. officials have supported Abe’s push for collective self-defense.

“It is an important consideration when we talk about the future of the alliance and how that alliance support will be structured,” Locklear said when asked if the U.S. backs Abe’s efforts. “So we’re looking forward to hearing how the Japanese people decide they would like to go forward.”

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