China sends warplanes to new air defence zone in South China Sea
China has dispatched war planes to a newly declared air defence zone over the East China Sea, according to reports.
Xinhua, the state news agency, quoted an air force colonel as saying the aircraft had carried out “routine patrols” of the zone, which covers nearly one million square miles of airspace.
If confirmed, the move would dramatically escalate tensions already running high after the United States, Japan and South Korea all ignored the declaration, which was made at the weekend.
China had insisted that any planes traversing the area should submit flight plans or face “emergency defensive measures”.
Washington responded by sending in two unarmed B52 bombers into the zone on Tuesday, while Japan and South Korea yesterday flew military aircraft into the area in defiance of Beijing.
The zone includes a cluster of rocky outcrops known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Earlier Japanese surveillance aircraft have conducted routine operations within China's recently declared air defence identification zone.
Beijing announced on Sunday that any aircraft entering the zone, which covers nearly 1 million square miles above the East China Sea, would be challenged, required to identify itself and follow Chinese order.
The Chinese military vowed to carry out "emergency defensive measures" against any aircraft that failed to comply with its demands.
Earlier today, Japan announced it had carried out flights close to the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as its sovereign territory, on Thursday met no resistance from the Chinese. Similarly, flights carried out by the military of South Korea - which also disputes China's declaration of the air zone as it overlaps Korean air space -were not challenged.
On Wednesday, two US B-52 Stratofortress nuclear bombers also defied the Chinese announcement and met no opposition.
"We are carrying out surveillance activities as before in the East China Sea, including the zone," Yoshihide Suga, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.
"We are not going to change this out of consideration to China," he added.
Australia, Taiwan and the Philippines have all criticised China's announcement, saying the new air defence zone compromises regional security. The Philippines is locked in a similar territorial dispute with China over vast tracts of the South China Sea, which Beijing has laid claim to and is wary of China declaring similar air defence zones over the contested areas.
"The reason why everyone is up in arms over this is that no state has previously simply asserted a large measure of sovereign control over international air-space," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told The Telegraph.
And while China has yet to respond to the flights through the territory that it claims as its own, Okumura says it is only a matter of time before Beijing pushes back.
"That means there will be more and more planes in the neighbourhood and there is a very real risk that we could see a serious miscalculation that leads to a further spiral of escalation," he said, pointing to the incident in 2001 in which a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter off the coast of China's Hainan Island.
The Chinese pilot was killed and the US aircraft was forced to land on Hainan, where the 24-strong crew were interrogated and detained for 10 days before being released.
Given the rapid recent expansion of the Chinese air force, Okumura said, there is a very real possibility that a relatively inexperienced Chinese pilot could make a similar error of judgement in a confrontation with Japanese aircraft.
All sides will be keen to avoid that sort of situation - "which would be the beginning of a war," Okumura said - and he anticipates that after a few more flights by each of the nations with a stake in the geo-political situation the region, a status quo will emerge.
"I do not believe that China will cancel the air zone - that would play very badly to a domestic audience - but over time they will not enforce their present demands and all this will fade into the background," he said.