Flight sees US challenge China’s airspace claim

Japan's Shinzo Abe pressed airlines to stop filing plans. Picture: Getty
Japan's Shinzo Abe pressed airlines to stop filing plans. Picture: Getty
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China’s newly self-declared “airspace defence identification zone” around an island group in the East China Sea disputed with Japan has been directly challenged by Washington, after the Pentagon said two B-52 bombers had flown through it without first informing Beijing.

“We have conducted operations in the area of the Senkakus. We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said last night, using the Japanese name for the islands.

The Chinese government declared on Saturday that it has the right to identify, monitor and possibly take military action against aircraft that enter the area around the Senkaku islands – known as the Diaoyu islands by China – which includes sea also claimed by Japan. The move threatens to escalate an already tense dispute over some of the maritime territory.

The Pentagon said the pair of B-52s carried out a mission that had been planned long in advance of the Chinese announcement last weekend, and said that the United States military would continue to assert its right to fly through what it regards as international airspace. The two bombers made the round-trip flight from the US airbase on Guam.

Meanwhile, Japan’s two biggest airlines have agreed to a request from Tokyo not to file the flight plans demanded by China on routes through the air defence zone.

Both All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL), which had been informing China’s aviation authorities of flights through the zone, will stop doing so from today, spokesmen for the carriers said.

Japan and the US have sharply criticised the creation of the defence area, seen as an attempt by China to chip away at Tokyo’s claim to administrative control over the maritime region.

By demanding airlines file flight plans through the zone or risk being intercepted by military jets, China is forcing carriers to effectively acknowledge Beijing’s authority over the zone, which is about two-thirds the size of the UK.

But by persuading ANA, JAL and other airlines to ignore the zone, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe may be calling China’s bluff. Mr Abe’s government earlier warned of possible unexpected consequences if Beijing enforced the rules.

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel described the move a “destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region”.

Civil aviation officials from Hong Kong and Taiwan said on Monday that their carriers entering the zone must send flight plans to Chinese aviation authorities. A transport ministry official in Seoul said South Korean planes would do the same.

Meanwhile, China yesterday sent its sole aircraft carrier on a training mission into the South China Sea.

The Liaoning, bought from Ukraine and refurbished in China, has conducted more than 100 exercises and experiments since it was commissioned last year, but this is the first time it has been sent to the South China Sea. It will carry out “scientific research, tests and military drills”, the Chinese navy said.

China also claims almost all the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, in conflict with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam. That dispute is one of the region’s biggest flashpoints amid China’s military build-up and America’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.

Though considered decades behind US military technology, the Liaoning represents the Chinese navy’s blue-water ambitions and has been the focus of a campaign to stir patriotism.