, Beijing, Nov 27 – China “monitored” US B-52 bomber flights in its newly-declared air defence identification zone, the defence ministry said Wednesday, in an assertion of its authority that avoided threatening direct action.
The flight of the giant long-range Stratofortress planes was a clear warning that Washington would push back against what it considers an aggressive stance by Beijing in the region.
Beijing’s non-confrontational response elicited scorn from some Chinese netizens as weak in the face of defiance, but analysts said it may never have intended to impose the zone by force.
The Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea includes Japan-administered islands at the heart of a tense dispute between the two neighbours.
Beijing’s controversial demand that aircraft submit flight plans when traversing it triggered a storm of diplomatic protest, and the Pentagon said the B-52s did not comply with the Chinese rules.
But in a statement, Beijing’s defence ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said: “The Chinese military monitored the entire process, carried out identification in a timely manner, and ascertained the type of US aircraft.
“China is capable of exercising effective control over this airspace.”
The statement, China’s first official response to the US action, did not include any expression of regret or anger at the flight, and appeared to be relatively mild, while reiterating Beijing’s claim of control.
Under the rules declared by China, aircraft are instructed to provide a flight plan, clearly mark their nationality and maintain two-way radio communication so they can respond to identification queries from Chinese authorities.
Any that do not comply can face “defensive emergency measures”, says Beijing, which portrays the zone as in line with international practice. State-run media say the ADIZ extends as close to Japan as Tokyo’s own zone approaches China.
Japan, the United States and several other governments rejected the zone after it was announced over the weekend.
The US State Department reiterated on Tuesday that China’s action appeared to be an attempt to “unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea”.
The B-52 flight was also a signal of US support for Japan, with which Washington has a security pact.
Its new ambassador to Tokyo Caroline Kennedy said Wednesday: “The Japanese can see every day that America is here for them as a partner in the defence of Japan.”
Japanese airlines, under pressure from Tokyo, stopped following China’s new rules on Wednesday after initially complying with them.
The bombers — which were unarmed — took off from Guam on Monday on a scheduled flight in what US defence officials insisted was a routine exercise.
Users of China’s popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo accused their own government of buckling when challenged.
“They came to test us and proved you don’t have the guts to show them who’s boss,” said one.
“Not daring to shoot it down shows that establishing an ADIZ is meaningless,” wrote another.
But analysts said Beijing had remained vague about how it might enforce its authority over the zone and may never have intended to react in the field.
It may simply have wanted to declare an ADIZ to match Japan’s and further assert its claim to the contested islands, they said.
The announcement left its options open “so they can explain away things like why there’s nothing they can do about the violation of their ADIZ”, said Jingdong Yuan, an international security expert at the University of Sydney.
Chinese officials and state media have accused Japan and the US — which both have ADIZs — of double standards, and argue that the real provocateur is Tokyo.
The territorial dispute, which has simmered for decades, escalated in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the islands from private owners.
Beijing accused Tokyo of changing the status quo and has since sent ships and planes to the islands in repeated displays of force, prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets 386 times in the 12 months to September.
After an unidentified drone flew around the area, Tokyo threatened to shoot down future such aircraft, which Beijing warned would amount to an “act of war”.
The close encounters around the uninhabited outcrops — known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku to Japan — have raised fears of an accidental clash.
But analysts stress that both China and Japan have strong commercial incentives to avoid armed conflict.
Beyond the East China Sea, Beijing has taken an assertive approach to territorial disputes in the strategic South China Sea.
In response to China’s growing military might and influence, the US has sought to shift its strategic focus to Asia.