The United States confronted Chinese territorial aggression Tuesday by flying a pair of B-52 bombers directly through airspace Beijing had tried to impose control over at the weekend.
China declared that foreign aircraft entering an area over the East China Sea without notifying their officials and maintaining radio contact would be subjected to "defensive emergency measures." The Pentagon disregarded the order and sent two huge planes to pass over a group of tiny uninhabited islands south-west of Japan. The Senakaku islands, located in an oil- and gas-rich region off China’s east coast, were transferred to Japanese control by the U.S. in 1971, but China claims it should have sovereignty over the archipelago.
The provocative American flights underlined Washington’s determination to stand by Japan amid simmering regional tensions. The allies, along with Taiwan and South Korea, have publicly rejected China’s attempt to unilaterally impose control over the area.
Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, criticized China for undermining regional security in a speech on Wednesday. "The Japanese can see every day that America is here for them as a partner in the defense of Japan," she said.
Despite bellicose statements to the contrary, China did nothing to intervene as the U.S. bombers passed through the area. China claimed that the aircraft had been detected and monitored as they flew through the area for more than two hours. A foreign ministry spokesman denied suggestions that China had been powerless to defend the airspace. "The Chinese government has the will and ability to defend our national sovereignty and security," said Qin Gang. "We also have the ability to exercise effective control over the East Sea Air Defense Identification Zone."
Coordinates for the airspace zone were announced over the weekend, more than a year after Tokyo surprised analysts by part-nationalizing the islands. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said China appeared to be agitating for a change in control over the islands. "This will raise regional tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents," she said.
Dean Cheng, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank, said the B-52 flights were a sure sign that the U.S. was flexing its muscles. "The fact that Washington responded and responded so strongly sends a very clear challenge back to Beijing saying: 'Look, in case you were wondering, we are serious when we say we are an ally of Japan. And do not mess with that,'" he told Reuters.
A Pentagon spokesman denied any such aggression. U.S. officials insisted the flights from a base in Guam were part of a long-planned training exercise. Joint U.S.-Japanese naval training exercises including the USS George Washington aircraft carrier are also continuing to the east of the area, closer to the island of Okinawa.
Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit China and Japan next week.
Japanese commercial airlines had already flown through the air defense zone without identifying themselves to the Chinese authorities, although other countries like Australia and South Korea told their airlines to comply with the new rules.
Although they had advised Qantas, the national airline, to register flight plans with Beijing, Australian politicians rejected Chinese claims over control of the airspace and called in the Chinese ambassador to express concern over the unexpected and unilateral ploy. "The timing and the manner of China's announcement are unhelpful in light of current regional tensions, and will not contribute to regional stability," said Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop.
Chinese academics said Beijing would be unable to ignore these breaches of its authority for long. "If the United States conducts two or three more flights like this, China will be forced to respond. If China can only respond verbally it would be humiliating," said Sun Zhe, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing told Reuters. "The concept of the paper tiger is very important.”