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Australia, meanwhile, said it called in the Chinese ambassador to express concern about the sudden zone declaration.

“The timing and the manner of China’s announcement are unhelpful in light of current regional tensions, and will not contribute to regional stability,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.

Beijing’s move fits a pattern of putting teeth behind its territorial claims and is seen as potentially leading to dangerous encounters depending on how vigorously China enforces it - and how cautious it is when intercepting aircraft from Japan, the U.S. and other countries.

China is sending its sole aircraft carrier to the South China Sea for its first sea trial, alarming the Philippines, which has conflicting claims with Beijing over parts of the region. Manila said the aircraft carrier’s presence in the sea threatens regional stability.

Chinese reaction to the U.S. bomber flights was predictably angry, with some recalling the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace off China’s southeastern coast - the kind of accident some fear China’s new policy could make more likely. The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, was killed in the crash and the U.S. crew forced to make a landing on China’s Hainan island, where they were held for 10 days and repeatedly interrogated before being released.

“Let’s not repeat the humiliation of Wang Wei. Make good preparations to counterattack,” wrote Zheng Daojin, a reporter with the official Xinhua News Agency on his Twitter-like Weibo microblog.

Businessman Li Pengliang said the island dispute had heightened anti-Japanese sentiment, but doubted the chances of an open conflict.

“The public is outraged, but I still believe that the leaders in power are sober minded. They will not act on impulse,” Li said.

Still others criticized the government’s handling of what they termed a battle of psychological pressure and international public opinion.

China is terrible at telling its side of the story. The silent one is the loser so why don’t they better explain our response to the American bomber flight,” wrote Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, on his blog.

It wasn’t clear whether Beijing had anticipated the forceful response from Washington and others, or how well it is prepared to back up its demands.

Chinese scholars, who often serve as ad-hoc government spokesmen, criticized Tuesday’s flights as a crude show of force and said Beijing wasn’t looking for a fight.

“It’s not that China didn’t want to enforce its demands, but how do you expect China to react?” said Zhu Feng, an international security expert at Peking University.