U.S. Directly Challenges China’s Air Defense Zone

Pair of American B-52 Bombers Fly Over Disputed Islands; China Says It Can Exercise ‘Effective Control’ of Zone

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 27 NOV 13) … Julian E. Barnes

The U.S. moved forcefully to try to counter China’s bid for influence over increasingly jittery Asian neighbors by sending a pair of B-52 bombers over disputed islands in the East China Sea, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The B-52s took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and flew more than 1,500 miles northwest, crossing into what China has declared as its new air-defense identification zone, at about 7 p.m. ET Monday. The U.S. deliberately violated rules set by China by refusing to inform Beijing about the flight, officials said.

China had warned of military action against aircraft entering the zone without notification, but didn’t respond to the B-52s, which weren’t armed and were part of a long-planned military exercise. A U.S. official said there was no attempt by the Chinese military to contact the B-52s. “The flight was without incident,” a U.S. official said.

Wednesday morning, in Beijing’s first public comment on the flight, the Ministry of National Defense said in a faxed response to The Wall Street Journal that the Chinese military monitored and identified the U.S. aircraft. It also said that China would identify all aircraft entering the zone and has the capability to exercise “effective control” of the zone.

The ministry said the U.S. military aircraft had flown on the eastern edge of the new Chinese zone, about 120 miles from the disputed islands.

A pair of American B-52 bombers flew over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea without informing Beijing in a direct challenge to China and its establishment of an expanded air defense zone. Julian Barnes reports on the News Hub. Photo: Getty Images.

By challenging a direct military warning, the U.S. flight risked a potentially destabilizing response by the Chinese. But the move also may have calmed tensions in the region by reassuring U.S. allies and keeping tempers in check in Japan, South Korea or other countries, Pentagon officials and defense analysts said.

The U.S. test was the outgrowth of months of growing tension in which China and its smaller neighbors have been jostling for control of waters with plentiful fishing stocks and potentially rich hydrocarbon reserves in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Beijing and Tokyo have competing claims to a group of islands in the East China Sea, and China moved over the weekend to solidify its standing by declaring the air-defense zone, which encompasses the disputed islands, requiring aircraft to report in before entering the zone.

The U.S. and key Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, criticized the requirements as a power grab by Beijing, and the Pentagon vowed to show it wouldn’t be bound by them.


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That demonstration came when the B-52s flew over the area without the required notification to Beijing.

U.S. officials stressed that both the exercise and flight path were long planned. A senior defense official said that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was briefed on the exercise, had made clear over the weekend that the U.S. should continue to fly over the islands.

There was little debate in the Pentagon about canceling the exercise or adjusting its flight path. Changing the exercise, the official said, would make it appear that Mr. Hagel was backing down and that the U.S. was acquiescing to the new zone.

U.S. defense officials said there would be further military exercises in the area, and acknowledged it is possible that China could attempt to contact or intercept the aircraft involved in future flights.

Officials said the military’s Pacific Command routinely prepares for contingencies, but that planners didn’t think it was likely that China would attempt to challenge the flight.

U.S. military planes often ignore the air-defense zones of non-allied countries, and frequently respond to any radio hail by asserting the right to operate in an international air space.

In Japan, commercial air carriers were caught in the middle, with Tokyo pressuring them to ignore China’s request for cooperation. Japan’s aviation authorities Tuesday ordered the national airline association to disregard a Chinese request for the flight plans of all flights that pass over the area in dispute.

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China moved to impose new rules on airspace over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. kyodo/Reuters

Japan’s move shows that Tokyo is determined to take a tough line in the territorial dispute.

“China’s measures have no validity in our country,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a news conference Tuesday evening. “We can’t accept a step that imposes unfair obligations on airplanes that fly in the zone set by China.”

Earlier Tuesday in Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China’s new zone wouldn’t affect regular international civilian flights, according to a transcript on the Foreign Ministry website.

Asked if China would take military action against aircraft that didn’t comply with its demands in the zone, the spokesman, Qin Gang, said: “It was written very clearly in the announcement. With regard to the question you’ve asked, the Chinese side will make an appropriate response according to the different circumstances and the threat level that it might face.”

China’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that the Chinese military would take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that didn’t obey the rules in the new zone. It didn’t specify what those measures would be.

The establishment of the new zone was certain to have been approved by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, who became military chief at the same time as taking over as head of the Communist Party in November last year, analysts and diplomats said.

But some analysts now believe that China might have overplayed its hand by angering not just Japan and the U.S., but South Korea and Taiwan—both of which have air-defense zones that overlap China’s—and several other countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

They see the move as part of a long-term strategy by China to try to gradually change the status quo in the East China Sea, and make it increasingly costly for Japan to enforce its claims, without crossing the lines that might provoke military conflict.

There have been inadvertent collisions between U.S. surveillance ships and planes and Chinese forces. In 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, forcing the American plane down on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

American officials worried that without a U.S. challenge of the zone, Tokyo might feel it necessary to mount a more direct challenge to increased Chinese presence around the disputed islands.

“The U.S. has been measured in its response to the island dispute, but very clear that the U.S. recognizes that Japan has administrative control of the islands,” said Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm. “There is a perception that because we have more engagement that the geopolitical risk is increasing. While there is a new risk element surrounding the question on how China will enforce the air-defense zone, the broader story is how the U.S. presence will be a mitigating variable.”

The U.S. has stepped up exercises with B-52s in the region this year, largely to reassure allies. In March, the U.S. conducted an exercise in South Korea using the B-52s, and later followed up with a flight of B-2 bombers.

The flight of the B-52s, based at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, was part of a long-planned exercise called Coral Lightning. The bombers weren’t accompanied by escort planes.

Officials said the training exercise wasn’t specifically related to the defense of the disputed islands, but was instead a more generalized defensive exercise.

The U.S. notified Japan of the flight. The B-52s entered Japan’s long-established air-defense identification zone as part of the flight, and the U.S. was in contact with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, officials said.

U.S. officials said they believe they had to challenge the air-defense zone to make clear they don’t consider its establishment appropriate or in the interest of regional stability.

The White House said Tuesday that the territorial dispute between China and Japan should be solved diplomatically. “The policy announced by the Chinese over the weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in California, where President Barack Obama was traveling.

China’s official Xinhua news agency announced earlier Tuesday that the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was making its maiden voyage to the South China Sea, where China is also embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The Liaoning left its homeport of Qingdao in eastern China on Tuesday and was being escorted by two destroyers and two frigates to the South China Sea where it would conduct training exercises, Xinhua said.

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said Saturday that China was planning to establish more ADIZs, and many analysts expect one of them to be over the South China Sea, where China’s claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

China had made some progress in easing tensions over the South China Sea in recent months with a charm offensive in Southeast Asia that was helped by President Obama’s failure to attend a regional summit in Brunei in October because of the U.S. government shutdown.

That was seen by many Asian governments as a sign of declining U.S. influence, despite its pledge to refocus military and other resources on the region as part of a so-called “pivot” toward Asia.

Beijing’s progress was undermined in the eyes of many, however, when it initially announced a donation of just $100,000 to help victims of a devastating typhoon in the Philippines, while the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to spearhead the relief effort.

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