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US Flies Bombers Through China's Defense Zone as Tensions Escalate in Asia


[UPDATE: The US has just flown two B-52 bombers near the Senkaku islands, in defiance of the Chinese air defense zone. “We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies,” said a Pentagon spokesman. There has been no response yet from Beijing.]

The effects of China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea are still reverberating around Asia and beyond. Aviation authorities, including an official from the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, said civilian airliners will be forced to cooperate with the Chinese authorities when flying through the ADIZ (see map above).

The Japanese and US governments unilaterally rejected China’s move and vowed to maintain the status quo: Japan administers islands within the ADIZ and the US promised to continue surveillance and military flights in the region and to protect its ally Japan. China blasted the US over Washington’s response, saying the Obama administration should cease “inappropriate remarks.”

The dispute is far from over. Today, Beijing dispatched its one and only aircraft carrier for military drills in the South China Sea in another attempt to emphasize Chinese sovereignty in the region. Japan demanded that China back down. “The measures by the Chinese side have no validity whatsoever on Japan, and we demand China revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace,” Abe said during a parliamentary session, as the Guardian reports. “It can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well.” China’s defense ministry called Abe’s remarks “absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”

This is significant escalation. Japanese and Chinese aircraft frequently come into contact with each other in this airspace, and it seems like Japan is constantly reminding Beijing that the “disputed” territory is actually administered by the Japanese government. There is a high risk that an aerial accident could lead to an international incident.

Just such an incident occurred between the United States and China in George W. Bush’s first term. On April Fools Day in 2001, an American intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, off China’s southern coast. The American plane was able to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory but the Chinese plane crashed into the sea and the pilot died. China held the American crew hostage for several days before the US “expressed regret” in a letter delivered by the ambassador. Ultimately the Hainan Island incident, as it came to be called, caused no lasting diplomatic damage in the US-China relationship, and the US still flies reconnaissance missions near Hainan.

But if a crash occurred today between Chinese and Japanese aircraft, it’s harder to imagine officials in Beijing and Tokyo calmly discussing what to do afterwards—especially if there were fatalities.

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  • lukelea

    The People’s Liberation Army may have a chip on its shoulder, and Xi is tight with them. An incident with Japan, if it showed China’s forces were not up to snuff, would be a great excuse for a major military build-up. A major military build-up would be a great way to keep the Chinese economy humming, not an easy thing now that everything else has been (over)built out.

    You don’t suppose Chinese leadership could be thinking in these terms? They don’t harbor aspirations to become one of the world’s major military powers, do they?

  • gabrielsyme

    Ultimately, Chinese aggression may serve to aid Western interests in the region by pushing the interests of nations such as Japan and South Korea closer together and promoting joint action. Abe isn’t helping this process, but if anything can promote cooperation among the Western-aligned nations in East Asia, it would be threats from China.

  • Fat_Man

    I hope that this is the beginning of regular air patrols in this area. We should park a carrier in the area and run regular F-18 missions off its decks.

    If we do not assert the freedom of the high seas, we will lose it.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Chinese Communist Party is looking to deflect internal interest away from its declining economy. Creating foreign threats is the most common method used by tyrannies to gather popular political support.

    I just read that the Chinese rich are immigrating and taking their money with them, estimates of $500-$687 Billion is already outside Chinese control with more leaving every day. This voting with their feet by China’s wealthiest and most productive citizens, doesn’t speak well of China’s future success.

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