WASHINGTON — Two long-range US bombers have conducted what Pentagon officials described Tuesday as a routine training mission through airspace recently claimed by China as its “air defense identification zone.”
The Chinese government said Saturday that it had the right to identify, monitor, and possibly take military action against aircraft that enter the area, which includes sea and islands also claimed by Japan. The claim threatens to escalate an already tense dispute over some of the maritime territory.
US officials said the pair of B-52s carried out a mission that had been planned long in advance of the Chinese announcement last weekend, and that the US military would continue to assert its right to fly through what it regards as international airspace.
Pentagon officials said the two bombers made a round-trip flight from Guam, passing through a zone that covers sea and islands that are the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Japan and China.
Officials said there had been no Chinese response to the bomber run.
The Obama administration has become increasingly worried by the tense standoff over the islands, which could drag the United States into a conflict. By treaty, the United States is obligated to defend Japan if it is attacked.
The islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, are currently administered by the Japanese, who consider the airspace above the islands to be theirs as well.
On Tuesday, Josh Earnest, a deputy White House spokesman, reiterated the administration’s view that the Chinese announcement was “unnecessarily inflammatory” and had a “destabilizing impact on the region.”
Within hours of the Chinese announcement that it had declared what Beijing termed an “East China Sea air defense identification zone,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a statement expressing deep concern over the action.
“We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” Hagel said. “This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”
Pentagon officials said the training sortie by the two
B-52s could be seen as underscoring that commitment to preserving traditional rules of international airspace.
Hagel’s statement said the United States had conveyed “concerns to China through diplomatic and military channels, and we are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan.”
His statement concluded by noting that the United States is “steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”
The move by China appeared to be another step in its efforts to intensify pressure on Japan over the Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are at the heart of the dispute.
The declaration, from a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, Colonel Yang Yujun, accompanied the ministry’s release of a map, geographic coordinates, and rules in Chinese and English that said, “China’s armed forces will take defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in identification or refuse to follow orders.”
One of the rules requires all aircraft flying in the zone to file flight plans with Chinese authorities. After the announcement Saturday, several Japanese commercial airlines began filing flight plans with China, according to the Japanese government. On Tuesday, Japan’s Transportation Ministry asked them to stop, and a group representing the two largest Japanese airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines, issued a statement later Tuesday saying that it would heed the request.