China has sent warplanes into disputed airspace over the East China Sea after Japanese and South Korean military aircraft flew through the area, the Chinese state news agency reported.
China’s air force spokesman Shen Jinke says several fighter jets and an early warning aircraft were sent on normal air patrols in the zone on Thursday. He was quoted by the state news agency Xinhua.
Shen described the flights as “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices”. He said China’s air force would remain on high alert and will take measures to protect the country’s airspace.
Japanese and South Korean aircraft flew through the airspace without informing China, officials said on Thursday, challenging a new Chinese air defence zone that has increased regional tensions and sparked concerns of an unintended clash.
China rejected South Korea’s demand for the repeal of the zone but appeared to soften its demand that commercial aircraft tell its military authorities of any plans to pass through the area. Japan’s two biggest airlines have already begun defying that order.
“This has already increased the risk [that the situation] will escalate from confrontation to conflict,” said Shi Yinhong, an expert on international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
“I think China will take flexible measures towards any aeroplane that flies over the zone, and that will still be compatible with China’s declarations,” he added.
“America is not our direct enemy, and South Korea is our friend. But Japanese armed aircraft would be a different story. If they dare to come into China’s declared zone, the Chinese air force will take action.”
China announced the zone at the weekend, prompting criticism from Japan and the US. Some experts said it was aimed not only at chipping away at Tokyo’s control of disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, but also at challenging US dominance in the region. On Tuesday the US flew two unarmed B-52 bombers over the islands without informing Beijing.
“The East China Sea air defence identification zone is not aimed at normal international flights,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang. “We hope that relevant countries’ airlines can proactively co-operate so there is more order and safety for flights.”
Asked if China was worried it would be seen as a “paper tiger” in light of its response to the US flights, Qin advised reporters to check Mao Zedong’s use of the phrase. Mao used the term as a metaphor for “US imperialism” in 1956 – seemingly powerful, but easily crippled by adversity, he said. He wanted to stress that the Chinese government had adequate resolution and ability to defend its national sovereign rights and to control the zone.
“This was clearly very calculated, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a miscalculation,” said Scott Harold, an expert on east Asian security at the Rand Corporation. China probably thought that declaring the zone was no different from its past strategic actions in the region – small, incremental steps that might annoy neighbouring countries but wouldn’t cause them to react. Instead, it “inflamed an underlying suspicion that everyone had: that China is going to work in grey zones, push the envelope and expand its territorial sovereignty claims with every opportunity it gets”.
China essentially has two options, Harold said: it “can do nothing, and confirm to the outside world that its rise is as risky as some people thought. Or on the other hand, it can do something to reassure the region and the world that it is not going to be a threat.” For the Chinese leadership, the first could jeopardise a bevy of important diplomatic relationships; the second would entail a major loss of face.
“I don’t know if there’s an easy out here for China,” Harold added. “The easy thing would be if they’d never done it in the first place.”
Japan’s top government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, said on Thursday that the country had sent patrol planes into the airspace without informing China, and that China did not intercept them.
“They are carrying out surveillance activity as before in the East China Sea, including the zone,” he told a news conference, according to Reuters. “We are not going to change this (activity) out of consideration to China.”