November 23, 2013
China Claims Air Rights Over Disputed Islands
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
HONG KONG — The Chinese government on Saturday claimed the right to identify, monitor and possibly take military action against aircraft that enter a newly declared “air defense identification zone,” which covers sea and islands also claimed by Japan and threatens to escalate an already tense dispute over some of the maritime territory.
The move appeared to be another step in China’s efforts to intensify pressure on Japan over the Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are at the heart of the dispute.
The declaration, from a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, Col. Yang Yujun, accompanied the ministry’s release of a map, geographic coordinates and rules in Chinese and English that said “China’s armed forces will take defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in identification or refuse to follow orders.”
“The objective is to defend national sovereignty and territorial and air security, as well as to maintain orderly aviation,” Colonel Yang said in comments issued on the ministry’s website.
Later Saturday, China’s air force said it had sent its first planes, including fighter jets, to enforce the rules. Soon afterward, Japan scrambled its own fighter jets, Reuters reported, citing Japan’s Defense Ministry. A ministry spokesman said two Chinese reconnaissance planes had flown within about 25 miles of what Japan considers its airspace, Reuters said.
The Chinese announcement followed months of increasing tension over the uninhabited islands as China appeared to be taking moves to establish its claim to them, including more frequent ship patrols in the area. Those patrols have led to cat-and-mouse games between Chinese and Japanese ships near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
But trying to control the airspace over the islands could prove particularly problematic. Japan considers that airspace its own and has scrambled fighter jets in the past to try to ensure that Chinese aircraft did not enter. As the potential for a miscalculation that leads to conflict has increased, the United States has become worried that as an ally of Japan, it could be dragged into any conflict with China.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” about China’s announcement. “Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. He urged China “to exercise caution and restraint.”
The Japanese Foreign Ministry said the government had lodged a “serious protest” with China. An official there, speaking on the condition of anonymity as is ministry practice, said the head of Asian affairs had called the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on Saturday to warn that the move could escalate tensions and was “extremely dangerous as it could trigger unpredictable events.”
Colonel Yang said that the declaration of the air zone was not aimed at any particular country, and that it would not impede the freedom of commercial flight over the East China Sea. But his words left little doubt that the move could be used against the Japanese government and military aircraft.
The longstanding dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the islands flared last year, before Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in November. The spark was a decision by the Japanese government to buy some of the islands from a Japanese citizen. Japan said the move was to keep the islands out of the hands of a nationalist politician who might increase tensions, but China saw the purchase as Japan’s effort to strengthen its hold on the islands.
The new Chinese rules left unclear how frequently and thoroughly China intends to enforce them. But Chinese state-run news media widely reported the announcement, which could kindle public expectations that the government will take steps to back up its words.
Military experts have said that even if Japan and China seek to avoid outright confrontation over the islands, there is the risk that an unplanned episode could spiral into a wider military conflict.
Martin Fackler contributed reporting from Japan, and Mark Landler from Washington.