In an escalation of the standoff over islands in the East China Sea, the Chinese Defense Ministry said Friday that it had scrambled two fighter jets to identify U.S. and Japanese planes flying through claimed airspace without notice.
It was the latest ratcheting of tension in the week since Beijing proclaimed an air defense identification zone over disputed islands known as the Diaoyu in China and as the Senkakus in Japan, which also claims sovereignty.
The two fighter jets dispatched by Beijing on Friday tracked and identified two U.S. reconnaissance planes and 10 Japanese surveillance and combat aircraft, the official New China News Agency reported.
“The (Chinese) air force has realized its effective normal monitoring of targets in the zone,” said air force spokesman Shen Jinke, portraying the response to the unannounced foreign flyovers as a routine defensive operation.
Beijing’s Nov. 23 proclamation of a national air defense zone covering most of the East China Sea and overlapping with airspace claimed by Japan and South Korea has prompted warnings that the action risks provoking conflict or accidental collisions.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have said they will not comply with China’s demand that all aircraft entering the proclaimed zone file flight plans with Chinese authorities beforehand. Washington and its allies have flown several sorties into the region over the last week to demonstrate their rejection of China’s unilateral claim to the islands.
The foreign military and commercial flights through the claimed zone have been criticized by Beijing as provocations.
“China’s air force is on high alert and will take measures to deal with diverse air threats to firmly protect the security of the country’s airspace,” Shen said.
Despite Beijing’s posturing over the new zone, Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said it was “incorrect” to see the patrolling and identification of intruding aircraft as a prelude to China shooting down unannounced flights, Reuters news agency reported from Beijing.
A Pentagon spokesman in Washington, Army Col. Steve Warren, said in response to the Chinese air scramble Friday that “the U.S. will continue to partner with our allies and will operate in the area as normal.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the Chinese proclamation of a sovereign air zone over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands was “unnecessarily inflammatory” and could have a “destabilizing impact on the region.”
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to respond to the Chinese action “in a calm and resolute manner” and in consultation with the United States and other allies, NHK television reported.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party drafted a resolution Friday denouncing the Chinese move to assert authority over the region as “a serious challenge to the international community” that is unacceptable and should be immediately retracted, NHK said.
The dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea islands has been intensifying for more than a year, after the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the tiny, uninhabited islands from a private owner.
Air defense identification zones are relatively common over disputed territory by the governments in control of the contested areas, and at least 20 worldwide are known to be declared and monitored. But China’s action in asserting ownership of islands in Japan’s possession is unusual. China is also engaged in disputes with at least six Asian neighbors over fisheries and other natural resources in the South China Sea.