- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2013

In an escalating standoff reminiscent of the Cold War, China on Tuesday denounced a flight by two U.S. B-52 bombers over a contested chain of islands in the East China Sea without first alerting Beijing — just days after China unilaterally announced an expanded air-defense zone around the islands.

The Pentagon’s sudden dispatch of the bombers was meant as a show of support for close ally Japan, which is in a protracted sovereignty dispute with China over the islands. But the move risks escalating an already heated regional situation, according to an editorial posted on the website of China Daily, a state-supported newspaper known to closely track Beijing’s official positions on such matters.

“The Japanese and U.S. hysteria is unnecessary and potentially dangerous, because it is based on a serious misreading, if not intentional distortion, of Chinese strategic purposes,” according to the editorial, which claimed Washington has no legitimate basis for challenging the new air-defense zone, known in Chinese military parlance as an Air Defense Identification Zone.

The Obama administration showed no signs of backing down. Deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that China’s creation of the zone over the weekend was “unnecessarily inflammatory and has a destabilizing impact on the region,” while State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki accused Beijing of trying to “unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.”

The Obama administration confirmed the mission first disclosed by The Wall Street Journal late Monday evening, although it remained coy about details of the B-52s’ flight.

Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Defense Department spokesman, said the planes flew “as part of a long-planned training sortie,” and that the bombers were not challenged at any point by Chinese forces.

The Reuters news agency reported Tuesday evening that China’s sole aircraft carrier had left port on a “training mission” heading for the South China Sea, where Beijing has been engaged in sovereignty disputes with the Philippines and other regional neighbors. It was not clear if the carrier move was related to the new U.S.-China tensions.

Challenged claim

The Pentagon dispatched the two unarmed B-52 bombers from Guam Monday evening specifically to challenge the Chinese claim of exclusive control of the airspace over the chain of land patches in the East China Sea — known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands.

The two Asian powers have a long dispute over control of the islands, which sit in the middle of what analysts say is a seabed potentially rich with oil, gas and other mineral deposits. U.S. officials had dismissed China’s announcement Saturday that it was establishing the new militarized zone around the island chain, and the move sparked an angry reaction in Japan.

The flights followed remarks Sunday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that China’s creation of the new air defense zone would “not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”

Mr. Hagel warned that the “unilateral action” by Beijing “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”

Chinese military officials portrayed the claim to the new zone as a defensive — rather than offensive — measure.

On Saturday, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun had said the broad purpose of any air defense zone was “to guard against potential air threats.”

“This airspace, demarcated outside the territorial airspace, allows a country to identify, monitor, control and dispose of entering aircraft,” said Mr. Yang, according to China’s state-backed Xinhua news service. “It sets aside time for early warning and helps defend the country’s airspace.”

Japan vs. China

Regional analysts said Chinese posturing is creating new geopolitical challenges for Washington, where the Obama administration is being forced to choose sides in the widening divide between Japan and China.

“Recent Chinese moves to underline its claims to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have forced the U.S. to back Japan far more vigorously and openly than it would prefer,” said Thomas Berger, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University.

“Over the past year, Japanese conservatives have called on the U.S. repeatedly to make more muscular displays of support,” Mr. Berger said in an email Tuesday. “The U.S., however, has been reluctant to respond to Japanese requests because it wishes to continue to engage [China].”

“China’s extension of its air-defense zone to cover the disputed islands — and its demands that civilian aircraft acknowledge its authority over the area — have crossed a red line for Washington,” he said. “Failure to respond may invite further, more dangerous provocations later. It would also encourage Tokyo to undertake more robust measures of its own.”

Friction over the island chain has ebbed and flowed during recent years. Chinese officials last year accused the Japanese government of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of trying to strengthen Japan’s claims to the chain, and coast guard ships from both sides have regularly confronted each other in the area’s waters.

No direct military contact has broken out, but tensions soared last month when Japan threatened to shoot down unmanned Chinese drones that Tokyo claims have been flying in the area.

While denying any intent to raise tensions with Tokyo, the China Daily editorial also carried a veiled threat to possible “hostile intruders” in the region.

“Our Defense Ministry made it clear that the zone does not target any specific country,” the editorial states. “And no country except Japan and the U.S. have voiced concerns. This is because other countries know it is designed to only ferret out hostile intruders.”

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