Shinzo Abe has urged China to scrap new measures to restrict flights over disputed territory in the East China Sea, even as Japan’s biggest commercial airlines said they were already complying with the rules set out on Saturday by Beijing.
Speaking in parliament on Monday, the Japanese prime minister said that China’s unilateral declaration of an “air defence identification zone”, which overlaps with one already operated by Japan, was an “unenforceable” action with “no validity whatsoever to Japan”.
However, that position appeared to be undermined by a swift compliance with Beijing’s policy by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, the country’s largest long-haul carriers, which operate dozens of flights daily through affected areas.
Both airlines said they had begun to notify the Civil Aviation Administration of China if flights to and from Taiwan or Southeast Asia planned to enter the area covered by the Chinese measures, or if weather patterns pushed aircraft into the zone en route. Both said they were doing so in accordance with notifications received from the CAAC on Saturday, after the foreign ministry in Beijing announced that aircraft around the zone would be subject to “emergency defensive measures” if they did not alert authorities to flight plans.
Japan Airlines, the country’s largest airline, said it had begun to take similar action.
“We have no comment about the policy itself, but we must follow procedures for safe flight operations,” said a JAL spokesperson.
Beijing-based diplomats said the decision by Japanese airlines to immediately start reporting their flight plans over the disputed islands to China’s civil aviation authorities made clear that Tokyo was caught by surprise by Beijing’s move.
The declaration of an overlapping area where China could theoretically defend its interests has opened up a new dimension in the long-running territorial dispute between Asia’s two largest economies.
The measures drew an angry response from Japan over the weekend, while drawing a sharply-worded condemnation from the US.
“We view this development as a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” said US defence secretary Chuck Hagel.
Mr Abe said on Monday that the measures heightened the risk of “unexpected incidents” in the air, should both sides send up fighter jets at the same time.
Patrol aircraft from Japan’s maritime self-defence force routinely fly around the small chain of islets in the East China Sea known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu. If a Chinese plane is detected in Japan’s ADIZ, F-15 jets are scrambled to warn it off.
Japan’s ministry of defence is worried that Chinese aircraft might now ignore such warnings, or attempt to chase them off.
“We are going to carefully watch the situation,” said a defence ministry spokesperson. “Our point of view is that we will definitely defend our territory around land, sea and air.”
Mr Abe’s comments came after China’s defence ministry on Monday said it had lodged protests with both the US and Japan over the weekend after they criticised the new Beijing measures.
“Now both countries have air defence identification zones that cover the Diaoyu Islands and some areas are overlapping the possibility of a military confrontation escalating into conflict has increased,” said Shi Yinhong, professor at the School of International Studies, at China’s Renmin University. “However Tokyo, Beijing and Washington will all try to control the risks. Over the long run this is part of China’s move to expand its strategic space into the western part of the West Pacific.”
More broadly, Japan says it is concerned that China’s move violates principles governing the freedom of flight in international airspace.
Japan does not require airlines to submit plans to enter its ADIZ, merely requesting that they do so, citing guidance from the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation. It also makes no threats if airlines do not comply with those requests.
“We are concerned that this series of measures taken by the Chinese government seriously infringes freedom of flights over high seas,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
China’s decision to set up its own ADIZ came as ties between the private sectors in Asia’s two largest economies had begun to improve, more than a year after anti-Japan demonstrations swept across China last September.
Last week a delegation of more than 100 Japanese business leaders travelled to Beijing, marking the first such trip in two years. Around 20 of them met vice-premier Wang Yang, with both sides agreeing to maintain and strengthen bilateral economic relations.
Additional reporting Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
S Korea adds to anger over Chinese air expansion
The South Korean foreign ministry said on Monday that one of its senior officials had held a meeting with a Chinese embassy representative, where he expressed that Seoul was “very, very concerned” about the Chinese declaration of its air defence zone, writes Simon Mundy in Seoul. The area claimed by China overlaps with South Korea’s own air defence zone, including the sky over Leodo – known as Suyan in China – a submerged rock that is claimed by both countries. “We don’t think it is fair – we think that area is our space,” the spokeswoman said.
Seoul also raised its concerns through a meeting between one of its deputy defence ministers and the Chinese defence attache on Monday. A defence ministry spokesman said the issue will be raised again on Thursday when Baek Seung-joo, South Korean vice defence minister, meets Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of general staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army. In a statement on Sunday, the defence ministry had said: “China’s move should not be a factor heightening regional tension and our government will strengthen necessary efforts to boost mutual trust among regional members.”
The issue threatens to cast a shadow over the relationship between Seoul and Beijing, who have found common cause in putting pressure on Japan, as both continue to argue with Tokyo over disputed territory and wartime atrocities. “Officially, both countries think there is no dispute over Leodo,” the foreign ministry spokeswoman said, referring to efforts by both countries to avoid confrontation on the subject. “But there can be the potential for a dispute.”
Additional reporting by Song Jung-a in Seoul