China establishes 'air-defence zone' over East China Sea

Islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been a source of tension between China and Japan for decades

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China has outlined an "air-defence identification zone" over an area of the East China Sea, covering islands that are also claimed by Japan.

China's defence ministry said aircraft entering the zone must obey its rules or face "emergency defensive measures".

The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are a source of rising tension between the countries.

Japan lodged a strong protest over what it said was an "escalation".

Analysis

Since President Xi Jinping took power a year ago, he has overseen a more muscular effort to assert Chinese control over disputed territories in East and South China seas.

His nationalist approach, backed-up by large increases in spending on the armed forces, is welcomed by many in China. But it has led to increasing tension with almost all of China's neighbours. Many, like Japan, have defence agreements with the United States, which has long sought to preserve the balance of power in Asia.

The fear is that one small incident, for example between Chinese and Japanese vessels or aircraft, could escalate rapidly into a far wider and more serious crisis.

"Setting up such airspace unilaterally escalates the situations surrounding Senkaku islands and has danger of leading to an unexpected situation," Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Taiwan, which also claims the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, expressed regret at the move and promised that the military would take measure to protect national security.

'No specific target'

In its statement, the Chinese defence ministry said aircraft must report a flight plan, "maintain two-way radio communications", and "respond in a timely and accurate manner" to identification inquiries.

"China's armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not co-operate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions," said the statement.

It said the zone came into effect from 10:00 local time (02:00GMT) on Saturday.

State news agency Xinhua showed a map on its website covering a wide area of the East China Sea, including regions very close to South Korea and Japan.

Responding to questions about the zone on an official state website, a defence ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said China set up the area "with the aim of safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order".

"It is not directed against any specific country or target," he said, adding that China "has always respected the freedom of over-flight in accordance with international law".

map of east china sea and declared air defence zone

"Normal flights by international airliners in the East China Sea air-defence identification zone will not be affected in any way."

The islands have been a source of tension between China and Japan for decades.

In 2012, the Japanese government bought three of the islands from their Japanese owner, sparking mass protests in Chinese cities.

Air-defence identification zones

  • Zones do not necessarily overlap with airspace, sovereign territory or territorial claims
  • States define zones, and stipulate rules that aircraft must obey; legal basis is unclear
  • During WW2, US established an air perimeter and now maintains four separate zones - Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and a contiguous mainland zone
  • UK, Norway, Japan and Canada also maintain zones

Source: aviationdevelopment.org

Since then, Chinese ships have repeatedly sailed in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters.

In September this year, Japan said it would shoot down unmanned aircraft in Japanese airspace after an unmanned Chinese drone flew close to the disputed islands.

China said that any attempt by Japan to shoot down Chinese aircraft would constitute "an act of war".

Last month Japan's defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, said China's behaviour over the disputed East China Sea islands was jeopardising peace.

BBC World Service East Asia editor Charles Scanlon says the confrontation over the small chain of uninhabited islands is made more intractable by conflicting claims for potentially rich energy resources on the sea bed.

But the issue has now become a nationalist touchstone in both countries, making it hard for either side to be seen to back down, he says.

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