China launched two fighter planes Friday to investigate flights by a dozen U.S. and Japanese reconnaissance and military planes in its newly announced maritime air defense zone over the East China Sea, state media said.
It was the first time since proclaiming the zone on Nov. 23 that China has dispatched military jets on the same day as other nations' military flights in the disputed airspace, although it said it merely identified the foreign planes and took no further action.
China announced last week that all aircraft entering the zone — covering and area with territorial boundaries disputed by Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — must notify Chinese authorities beforehand and that it would take unspecified defensive measures against those that don't comply. Neighboring countries and the U.S. have said they would not honor the new zone and have said it unnecessarily raises tensions.
Late Friday, however, the Obama administration said it would advise U.S. commercial airlines to acquiesce to China's demands and provide notice of flights through the contested airspace.
"The U.S. government generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with (Notices) issued by foreign countries," the White House said in a statement while stressing that this advisory "does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China's" territorial claims.
The state-run China News quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Shen Jinke as saying the Chinese fighter jets identified and monitored the two U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and a mix of 10 Japanese early-warning, reconnaissance and fighter planes during their flights through the zone early Friday.
"China's air force has faithfully carried out its mission and tasks, with China's navy, since it was tasked with patrolling the East China Sea air defense identification zone. It monitored throughout the entire flights, made timely identification and ascertained the types," Shen was quoted as saying.
In Washington a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, when asked about China's statement that its planes had identified and monitored U.S. aircraft in the zone, said, "The U.S. will continue to partner with our allies and will operate in the area as normal."
Japanese officials declined to confirm details of any flights but said routine missions in the area were continuing.
"We are simply conducting our ordinary warning and surveillance activity like before. We have not encountered any abnormal instances so far, therefore we have not made any announcement," Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters in Tokyo.
The United States and other countries have warned that the new zone could boost chances for miscalculations, accidents and conflicts, though analysts believe Beijing's move is not intended to spark any aerial confrontations but rather is a long-term strategy to solidify claims to disputed territory by simply marking the area as Chinese.
June Teufel Dreyer, who specializes in security issues at the University of Miami, said the Chinese government — while backing down from strictly enforcing the zone to keep a lid on tensions — is walking a delicate line because it is faced with strong public opinion from nationalists at home. Sending up the fighter planes Friday was aimed at the domestic audience, and China is likely to send planes regularly when foreign aircraft enter the zone without notifying Chinese authorities, she said.
"They will be escorting the intruding planes, but they are not going to shoot them," she said.
The zone is seen primarily as China's latest bid to bolster its claim over a string of uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Beijing has been ratcheting up its sovereignty claims since Tokyo's nationalization of the islands last year. However, some analysts have questioned whether China has the means to fully enforce the zone because of insufficient early-warning radar aircraft and in-flight refueling capability.
The U.S., Japan and South Korea said they sent military flights into the zone over the past week, and Japanese commercial flights have continued unhindered — although China has said its zone is not intended to have any effect on commercial flights not heading to China.
Dreyer said the U.S. and Japan have kept sending planes into the zone to make good on the message that they are ignoring it. "They have to do it more than once to show they are serious," she said.
She said that the Chinese government may have miscalculated the strength of the international response to the establishment of the zone but that China would hold its line in the long run.
"The Chinese government is not going to concede the substance," Dreyer said. "When circumstances are more conducive, they will try to enforce it more strictly in the future. This is a pattern we have noticed for decades."
The Associated Press