Chinese fighter jets check air zone intruders

CHINA launched two fighter planes yesterday to investigate flights by a dozen US and Japanese reconnaissance and military planes in its newly established maritime air defence zone over the East China Sea.

The Chinese fighter jets identified and monitored the two US and 10 Japanese aircraft during their flights through the zone early yesterday, the defence ministry said. It made no mention of any further action.

China announced last week that all aircraft entering the zone – a maritime area between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – must notify Chinese authorities beforehand, and that it would take unspecified defensive measures against those that do not comply.

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Neighbouring countries and the US have said they will not comply with the new zone and have criticised the move, saying it unnecessarily raises tensions.

The US, Japan and South Korea have said they have sent flights through the zone without encountering any Chinese response since Beijing announced the creation of the zone.

It was the first time China said it sent military planes into the zone on the same day as foreign military flights since proclaiming the zone on November 23.

China’s lack of efforts to stop the foreign flights – including two US B-52s that flew through the zone on Tuesday – has been an embarrassment for Beijing.

Even some Chinese state media outlets have suggested Beijing may have mishandled the episodes.

Without prior notice, Beijing began demanding last Saturday that passing aircraft identify themselves and accept Chinese instructions or face consequences.

But when tested just days later by US B-52 flights – with Washington saying it made no effort to comply with China’s rules, and would not do so in the future – Beijing merely noted, belatedly, that it had seen the flights and taken no further action.

South Korea’s military said its planes flew through the zone this week without informing China and with no apparent interference.

Japan also said its planes have been continuing to fly through it after the Chinese announcement, while the Philippines, locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with Beijing over South China Sea islands, said it also was rejecting China’s declaration.

The US and other countries have warned that the new zone could boost the chances of miscalculations, accidents and conflicts, though analysts believe Beijing’s move is not intended to spark any aerial confrontations but rather a long-term strategy to solidify claims to disputed territory by simply marking the area as its own.

The zone is seen primarily as China’s latest attempt to bolster its claim over a string of uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Beijing has been ratcheting up its sovereignty claims since Tokyo’s nationalisation of the islands last year.

There are questions whether China has the technical ability to fully enforce the zone due to a shortage of early warning radar aircraft and in-flight refuelling capability.

However, many believe that China has a long-term plan to win recognition for the zone with a gradual ratcheting-up of warnings and possibly also eventual enforcement action.

But some experts say the decision to impose the zone was likely to have been triggered by Japan’s threat last month to shoot down drones that China says it will send to the islands for mapping expeditions.

Prime Minister David Cameron is due to visit China on a three-day trip beginning tomorrow, which is being primarily focused on improving trade links, although human rights and other issues are likely to be raised as part of talks with Chinese officials.