November 26, 2013

U.S. flies two warplanes over East China Sea, ignoring new Chinese air defense zone

Featuring Patrick M. Cronin

Source: The Washington Post

Journalist Craig Whitlock

The U.S. military has flown two warplanes over the East China Sea on a training exercise, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, blatantly ignoring a recent edict from China that it must be informed in advance of any such flights over the region.

The two unarmed aircraft flew Monday evening, Eastern time, over a small island chain that China and Japan both claim as their territory, said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman. He said the U.S. military did not provide any notice to Beijing and described the mission as “uneventful,” saying that there was “no contact, no reaction from China.”

On Saturday, China issued an edict imposing an “air defense identification zone”over part of the East China Sea and the uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyo in China. The Chinese Defense Ministry warned that any noncommercial aircraft entering the zone would need to submit flight plans in advance or else face the possibility of “defensive emergency measures.”

Japan and the United States immediately protested the move. The Pentagon, which frequently conducts naval and air exercises in the East China Sea, said it had no intention of bowing to China’s demands, calling them “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”

On Tuesday, the White House blasted China’s imposition of the air defense identification zone, but urged Beijing to address territorial conflicts diplomatically instead of militarily.

“We believe that inflammatory rhetoric and inflammatory policy pronouncements like those made by the Chinese over the weekend are counterproductive, and we believe that those differences of opinion can and should be resolved diplomatically,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “It’s in the interest of all of the parties in the region to do that.”

Crosson declined to identify what kind of U.S. military aircraft carried out the mission on Monday but said the planes came from a base on Guam, the U.S. territory in the Pacific. Another U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the operation, said the aircraft were both long-range B-52 bombers.

Numerous countries, including the United States and Japan, have air defense identification zones of their own. The zones are established to help countries track or monitor aircraft nearing their territories, but in this case, the zones of Japan and China overlap.

Security experts worry that China’s new zone could increase the likelihood of a mishap that sparks a wider armed conflict, drawing in the United States, which is treaty-bound to protect Japan.

The tension with China threatens to cloud a planned trip by Vice President Biden to Beijing next week. Biden is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in between visits to Japan and South Korea.  

Analysts said it was unlikely that either Beijing or Washington would want to cancel Biden’s visit. “There’s now too much wrapped up in the U.S.-Chinese relationship,” said Patrick Cronin, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank that works closely with the Obama administration. “Neither side wants to take a high risk.”

Chico Harlan in Seoul contributed to this report.


  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...