WASHINGTON — The United States on Wednesday reaffirmed its military alliance with Japan and pledged to back Tokyo in a mounting dispute with China over a chain of small islands and the airspace over them.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed the controversy in a call he initiated to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. During their discussion, Hagel criticized Beijing’s establishment Saturday of what China called “the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone,” according to Carl Woog, a Pentagon assistant press secretary.
Under the Chinese edict, aircraft entering the zone must identify themselves to Chinese military authorities.
The call to Onodera came one day after the United States reported that it had flown two unarmed B-52 bombers into the area on what it said was a routine training flight, which nonetheless was intended to signal that the U.S. did not recognize China’s authority over the zone.
On Wednesday, the Chinese Defense Ministry acknowledged the U.S. incursion but offered a description that differed from the U.S. version of what took place.
According to the Chinese state-operated Xinhua news agency, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said that China “observed U.S. B-52 bombers” flying south and north along the zone’s eastern border “from 11 a.m. to 1:22 p.m. Tuesday (local time), about 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the east of the Diaoyu Islands.”
That route would mean the U.S. planes scarcely entered the new Chinese air zone and did not fly directly over the disputed islands, which the Japanese call the Senkaku. Both Japan and China claim the eight uninhabited islands off China’s coast.
In the Pentagon’s account, the B-52 bombers flew about 3,000 miles from Andersen Air Force Base on the American island territory of Guam, circled the islands and returned to base. The mission required an in-air refueling.
Hagel told Onodera that China’s declaration of the air identification zone “is a potentially destabilizing action designed to change the status quo in the region, and raises the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation,” Woog said.
Geng, however, said: “China is capable of exercising effective control over this airspace.”
Vice President Joe Biden will address the controversy next week during a trip to Beijing.
“Clearly the visit to China creates an opportunity for the vice president to discuss directly with the policymakers in Beijing this issue (in order) to convey our concerns directly and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making this move at this time,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters during a phone briefing. Under the conditions of the call, the official could not be identified.
China also responded to the announcement Tuesday by major Japanese airlines that they will not share their flight data when their planes near the disputed air zone. “We need to stress that China will identify every aircraft flying in the air defense identification zone,” Geng said.
Hagel commended the Japanese government for exercising restraint in response to China’s unilateral declaration.
“Secretary Hagel assured Minister Onodera that U.S. military operations will not in any way change as a result of China’s announcement, noting that recent routine and long-planned U.S. flight operations have already occurred as normal following the (Chinese) announcement,” Woog said.
Zhang Junshe, described by Xinhua as an expert with the Chinese navy, told the news agency that establishment of the air defense zone is not targeted at Japan and is not tied to the two nations’ dispute over the small islands. “Other nations do not need to be alarmed,” Zhang said, noting that Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam have set up their own air defense zones over waters near their coastlines. The new Chinese air zone partially overlaps with a previously established Japanese zone.
Chai Lidan, an expert with the Chinese air force, told Xinhua: “Since every country has an equal right to protect its sovereignty and security, the principle of ‘first come, first served’ should not be applied on air defense identification zones.”
In his conversation with Onodera, Hagel “reaffirmed longstanding U.S. policy that Article V of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents,” Woog said.