China sent fighter jets into its new air defence zone on Thursday further escalating tensions in the East China Sea that have also drawn in the US.
Col Shen Jinke said several fighter jets and an early-warning aircraft had been deployed as part of a routine patrol. He described the mission as “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices”, according to a statement on the website of the Chinese defence ministry.
The move came as Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft into the same zone, in defiance of China’s demand on Saturday that it be informed of all flights through the area. The zone includes airspace over the contested Senkaku Islands. Earlier this week the US responded to China’s declaration of an “air defence identification zone” by sending B-52 bombers into the airspace as part of a pre-planned exercise.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said on Thursday Japanese military aircraft were “carrying out surveillance activity as before in the East China Sea”.
“We are not going to change this out of consideration to China,” said Mr Suga, without saying how often Japanese military aircraft had entered the zone.
The South Korean defence ministry said on Thursday it had conducted a routine surveillance mission on Tuesday over a submerged rock where Seoul has a scientific research centre, but to which China also lays claim.
Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo have mounted over the past year as Chinese ships and aircraft try to weaken Japan’s control over the group of five uninhabited islands and three rocks that are known in China as the Diaoyu. Japan angered China last year by buying three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.
China has said the creation of the air zone – which overlaps with corresponding Japanese and South Korean zones – was a “legitimate action” and not targeted at any one country. But the move has sparked criticism across the region and drawn a sharp rebuke from the US.
At a meeting in Seoul on Thursday, Chinese military officials rejected calls from South Korea to reconsider the zone, according to Seoul’s defence ministry.
“Japan and the US should carefully reflect upon and immediately correct their mistakes,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday. “They should stop their irresponsible accusations against China and refrain from remarks and actions that harm regional stability.”
William Fallon, a former head of US Pacific Command, warned on Wednesday that the Chinese zone would raise the potential for an accidental conflict.
“It is another stick on the fire, and absolutely unnecessary,” said Mr Fallon. “If you send up fighters, it is another opportunity for people to screw up.”
Joe Biden, US vice-president, will tell Chinese leaders on a trip to Beijing next week that the establishment of an air defence zone is “unsettling” to its neighbours and raises questions about its broader international behaviour.
Additional reporting by Mitsuko Matsutani in Tokyo, Geoff Dyer in Washington and Tom Mitchell in Beijing
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