Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew over disputed islands in the East China Sea during a training mission Tuesday, defying new territorial claims laid out by China over the weekend, according to several U.S. officials.
The two unarmed bombers took off from Guam on Monday and were in the area for less than an hour, thundering across the Pacific skies around midday there, the officials said, adding that the aircraft encountered no problems.
While the U.S. insisted the training mission was planned long ago and was not in reaction to China's latest declaration, it came just days after China issued a map and a new set of rules governing the zone, which includes a cluster of islands that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.
Beijing said on Saturday that all aircraft entering the new air defense zone must notify Chinese authorities and are subject to emergency military measures if they do not identify themselves or obey Beijing's orders.
U.S. officials, however, said they have received no reaction to the bomber flights from the Chinese.
The mission underscores Washington's immediate rejection of Beijing's new rules. The U.S., which has hundreds of military aircraft based in the region, has said it has zero intention of complying. Japan, likewise, has called the zone invalid, unenforceable and dangerous, and Taiwan and South Korea, both close to the U.S., also rejected it.
China's move to further assert its territorial claims over the islands is not expected to immediately spark confrontations with foreign aircraft.
Beijing's announcement, which was greeted rapturously by hard-line Chinese nationalists, serves to keep the island controversy alive in service of Beijing's goal of forcing Tokyo to accept that the islands are in dispute — a possible first step to joint administration or sole Chinese control over them.
It also fits a pattern of putting teeth behind China's claims and could lead to dangerous encounters, depending on how vigorously China enforces it and how cautious it is if its planes intercept aircraft from Japan, the U.S. and other countries.
The declaration seems to have flopped as a foreign policy gambit. Analysts say Beijing may have miscalculated the forcefulness and speed with which its neighbors would reject its demands.
At least in the short term, the move undermines Beijing's drive for regional influence, said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"It doesn't serve Chinese interests to have tensions with so many neighbors simultaneously," she said.
Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said China's enforcement will likely be mostly rhetorical at first.
"The Chinese can now start counting and reporting what they call Japanese violations while arguing that the Chinese side has shown great restraint by not exercising what they will call China's right to shoot and arguing further that China cannot be so patient indefinitely," Roy said.
China faces practical difficulties because of gaps in its air-to-air refueling and early warning and control capabilities, presenting challenges in keeping its planes in the air and detecting foreign aircraft, according to Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore.
Despite that, Beijing has shown no sign of backing down, just as it has continued to aggressively enforce its island claims in the South China Sea over strong protests from its neighbors.
China further complicated matters by not consulting others on the protocols it expects them to follow or the rules of engagement for Chinese pilots, said Ross Babbage, chair of Australia's Kokoda Foundation, a security think tank.
"This is the kind of situation that clearly has the potential to escalate," Babbage said.
The Associated Press