U.S. Flies Bombers Through East China Sea Air Space China Claims

The United States military flew two B-52 bombers into air space that China recently designated as an air defense identification zone. The showdown is part of a larger dispute involving China and Japan and territorial rights in the East China Sea.

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American military planes flew through contested airspace today off the coast of China. The flights escalate a longstanding dispute that has brought China and its neighbors close to armed conflict. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the issue is becoming a test of U.S. commitment to defending its allies in Asia.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Over the weekend, China declared the East China Air Defense Identification Zone, ADIZ, around what it calls the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. In its announcement, China said that aircraft flying in the area would have to identify themselves and report their flight plans. The consequences for not doing so, according to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, could be serious.

BONNIE GLASER: The Chinese have claimed that if aircraft fly in their new ADIZ, that even if the aircraft is not flying towards Chinese territory, that they have the right to intercept and take emergency measures in response, which could include shooting down such aircraft.

ABRAMSON: Glaser says the problem is that this new identification zone overlaps with an air zone declared by Japan. It also claims sovereignty over the islands, which it calls the Senkaku.

GLASER: And it also covers territorial disputes with South Korea and with Japan, which just increases the potential for some kind of problem or accident.

ABRAMSON: The U.S. criticized the declaration of the identification zone as soon as it was announced. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, quote, "We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region." Hagel said the move increases the risk of misunderstanding. But at the same time, he announced that U.S. forces would continue to fly through the area, as they always have. Today, the U.S. followed through on that promise by sending two unarmed B-52 bombers over the area.

A Pentagon spokesman said there was no response from China and the flights went off without incident. The islands themselves are uninhabited. But Orville Schell of the Asia Society says the Chinese claim, in essence, greatly extends the country's sphere of influence.

ORVILLE SCHELL: So to claim an island is, in effect, to claim a vast portion of sort of maritime space.

ABRAMSON: The U.S. is wary of growing Chinese power in the region. In response, the Obama administration has been executing a pivot to Asia, promising to move additional military assets to the region. The U.S. has also been buttressing its alliances with countries like the Philippines, which has its own disputes with China over different islands to the south of this new zone. The U.S. is officially neutral in those disputes and has been simply urging the parties to resolve them peacefully. But as Orville Schell points out, the U.S. is so close to Japan it will be hard to maintain that neutrality.

SCHELL: The security treaty, which Japan obliges the U.S. to come to Japan's aid, is in the event that they are attacked. So, in essence, the Chinese see the U.S. on the side of the Japanese.

ABRAMSON: China and its neighbors have been involved in a series of confrontations at sea between coast guard or fishing vessels. But Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the United States Institute of Peace points out the stakes are much higher if there's an encounter in the air.

STEPHANIE KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: You know, a fighter pilot has very limited time to make maneuvers to avoid a collision. They might have to interpret the rules of engagement and make decisions regarding their mission in a much shorter timeframe, meaning that a situation can develop faster than it does at sea.

ABRAMSON: In 2001, a midair collision between a Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet led to a tense standoff between the two countries. The pilot of the Chinese jet died. The U.S. plane was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan. The 24 American crew members were detained and questioned for 11 days. They were only released after the two sides agreed to a carefully worded letter in which the U.S. expressed regret for the incident.

U.S. officials said today forces regularly train in this area and they would continue do so, despite the Chinese declaration. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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