China creates defense zone over Senkakus

Tokyo is charging a weekend move by Beijing that established its own air defense zone over part of southwestern Okinawa Prefecture that includes the Senkaku Islands as “very dangerous”, while the United States says it is “deeply concerned” by China’s move.

China’s Defense Ministry announced the zone’s establishment, saying it was necessary to “guard against potential air threats.”  China immediately launched Air Force reconnaissance and fighter jets on a patrol mission over the zone, which covers a wide section of the western Pacific, including the East China Sea between South Korea and Taiwan, that includes airspace over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu by China.

Japan’s Junichi Ihara, director of the Japan Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, quickly issued a protest to the Minister at the Chinese Embassy in Japan, Han Zhiqiang, saying Japan would “never accept the zone set by China” because it includes the Senkaku islets.  He predicted the Chinese move would “escalate” the current level of tensions.

For its part, China says the new zone will “safeguard state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintain flight order.”  Yang Yujun, a Defense Ministry spokesman, says “It is a necessary measure in China’s exercise of self-defense rights. It has no particular target and will not affect the freedom of flight in relevant airspace.”  Yang added that “China will take timely measures to deal with air threats and unidentified flying objects from the sea, including identification, monitoring, control and disposition, and it hopes all relevant sides positively cooperate and jointly maintain flying safety,” he said.

As a part of establishing the zone, China’s Defense Ministry issued new rules on aircraft identification that must be adhered to by all aircraft entering the area.  He said violations would be met with intervention by China’s military.  Aircraft must provide their flight plans, clearly marking their nationality, and must maintain two-way radio communication to allow them to “respond in a timely and accurate manner to the identification inquiries” from Chinese authorities.  People’s Liberation Army Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke confirmed patrols have already begun, saying “The patrol is in line with international common practices, and the normal flight of international flights will not be affected.”

Four Chinese coastguard boats briefly entered Senkaku waters last Friday, the latest in a series of incursions that began in late October and early November.  Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, had said at that time that the continuous incursions were a threat to peace, while falling into “’a grey zone’ between peacetime and emergency situations.”

Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued their worries about the situation. “This unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Kerry said, adding “Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident. ” America’s top diplomat said from Geneva, the United States has urged China to “exercise caution and restraint,” and warned Beijing against implementing its new zone. He says “We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”

Hagel echoed Tokyo’s claims to the Senkaku islands, asserting “We are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan. We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners.” Hagel says “This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”