China said it has launched two fighter planes to investigate flights by a dozen US and Japanese reconnaissance and military planes in its new self-declared air defence zone, raising the stakes in a stand-off over disputed territories in the East China Sea.
The ministry of defence in Beijing said Chinese fighter jets identified and monitored the two US reconnaissance aircraft and a mix of 10 Japanese early-warning, reconnaissance and fighter planes which passed through the zone early yesterday.
"China's air force has faithfully carried out its mission and tasks, with China's navy, since it was tasked with patrolling the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone. It monitored throughout the entire flights, made timely identification and ascertained the types," ministry spokesman Colonel Shen Jinke said in a statement.
It was the first time since proclaiming the Aerial Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) last Saturday that China said it launched retaliatory flights on the same day as foreign military flights.
The United States, Japan and South Korea all disregarded the zone before yesterday, with two unarmed US B-52 bombers the first to fly through it on Tuesday.
China has now responded twice with its own flights, and with extra aircraft in the air and rhetoric growing more heated among Chinese nationalists, the chances are rising of an accident that could spark an unintended conflict.
Other countries around the world have previously declared ADIZs, and China insists it is acting in accordance with international norms by asking other countries to identify themselves before flying through the area.
But its action has raised concerns because the zone, which covers nearly one million square miles, includes territory claimed by China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, while the entire region fears that in the long-term China's growing economic clout could translate into a new militarism.
The zone includes a contested cluster of rocky outcrops known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs representative, expressed concern about the declaration.
"This development heightens the risk of escalation and contributes to raising tensions in the region," Ms Ashton said. "The EU calls on all sides to exercise caution and restraint."
Qin Gang, China's foreign ministry spokesman, criticised her remarks, saying China hoped the EU could treat the situation "objectively and rationally".
"Actually, Madam Ashton should know that some European countries also have Air Defence Identification Zones," Mr Qin said. "I don't know if this leads to tensions in the European regional situation. European countries can have Air Defence Identification Zones. Why can't China?"
Asked to clarify China's expectations for what information airlines were expected to report, Mr Qin said: "International law does not have clear rules on what kind of flight or airplane should apply," adding that each country made its own rules.
"Therefore, China's method does not violate international law and accords with international practice."
Earlier yesterday, China's state media called for "timely countermeasures without hesitation" if Japan violates the country's newly declared air zone.
June Teufel Dreyer, who specialises in security issues at the University of Miami, said the Chinese government – while backing down from strictly enforcing the zone to keep a lid on tensions – was walking a delicate line because it was faced with strong public opinion from nationalists at home. Sending up the fighter planes was aimed at a domestic audience, and China was likely to send up planes regularly when foreign aircraft enter the zone without notifying Chinese authorities, she said.
"They will be 'escorting' the intruding planes, but they are not going to shoot them," she said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)