U.S. State Department guidance to domestic airlines that they comply with China's new air defense zone in the East China Sea has perplexed Japan, which wonders if it still has the full support of its ally in challenging Beijing's claims to the airspace.
Japan and the United States had consistently taken a firm stand against China's designation late last month of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlaps the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islets are administered by Japan but claimed by China.
But if the U.S. government places a priority on the safety of civilian aircraft in the airspace, it means that Tokyo and Washington will have trouble coordinating their responses.
While China praised the State Department's guidance, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official expressed concern.
“The U.S. action may represent Washington's intention to be interpreted either way, giving consideration to both commercial carriers demanding the safety of flights and the Japanese government,” the official said.
To Japan, the United States appeared to be a reliable ally that supported its firm stance on China’s unilateral action in establishing the zone, and was full of praise when Washington sent two U.S. B-52 bombers into the zone on Nov. 26.
However, the State Department on Nov. 29 announced a policy that U.S. commercial airlines should notify Chinese authorities in advance of their flight plans in the zone.
According to the online version of The New York Times, talks between U.S. government officials and airline executives began on Nov. 27. Two days later, the State Department settled on the guidelines for commercial carriers to follow established international air protocols, apparently for safety concerns for passengers flying through the disputed airspace.
"The U.S. government generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistently with NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) issued by foreign countries,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Nov. 29.
But it also added: “Our expectation of operations by U.S. carriers consistent with NOTAMs does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China's requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ.”
The guidance to commercial airlines runs counter to the U.S. Defense Department’s approach with its military aircraft and
took the Japanese government by surprise. When a senior official with the Foreign Ministry learned of the news on Nov. 30, the official said, “Since there is no information available yet, we cannot respond.”
The ministry inquired the U.S. side about the guidance, and was told that there was no confirmation that the U.S. government had made such a request to commercial carriers.
Officials with the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry stressed that Washington has never recognized Beijing’s newly declared air defense zone. The transport ministry reaffirmed that it will adhere to its policy of not asking commercial airlines to give China prior notification.
After Beijing declared the creation of the zone on Nov. 23, Japanese carriers notified Chinese aviation authorities with their flight plans to comply with their demand.
But the Japanese government called on the airlines to halt the notifications on the grounds it does not recognize the zone, which it said Beijing unilaterally established.
The Japanese government went further to make clear its position by flying aircraft from the Self-Defense Force and Japan Coast Guard through the airspace unannounced.
China hailed the State Department’s latest move as a gesture of paying respect to its newly created zone.
China Central Television reported on the guidance for American carriers on Nov. 30, quoting U.S. news outlets’ coverage.
“The Obama administration requested U.S. commercial airlines to comply with China’s rules when they enter the Chinese air defense zone,” CCTV said.
A flurry of messages hailing the development appeared on Weibo microblogging service, Chinese version of Twitter, right after the CCTV reports.
“(President) Obama saved China’s honor,” said one posting. “Finally, the international community acknowledged China’s air defense zone.”
The Chinese air force is set to defend its nation's claims to the zone. In the Nov. 30 edition, the Global Times, affiliated with People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, carried “exclusive” reports on China scrambling fighter jets the day earlier to intercept aircraft.
It said that SDF aircraft took off from Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, and that EP-3 U.S. surveillance planes were the latest model in the line of the reconnaissance aircraft.
These reports were not included in a statement released by a Chinese air force spokesman on Nov. 29.
These reports, experts say, suggest that Beijing intends to show off its air defense and surveillance capabilities to audiences in and outside China by having local media report on intelligence that authorities gathers on SDF and U.S. military aircraft.
DISPUTE UNLIKELY TO INCREASE MILITARY TENSIONS
The Japanese and U.S. governments agree that given the current situation, military tensions are less likely to heighten around the Senkakus dispute.
An official close to the Japanese government cited a lack of protests by Tokyo and Washington over the Chinese reports of scrambling fighter jets in response to the intrusion of SDF and U.S. military aircraft in the ADIZ.
In autumn last year, Beijing announced that the Chinese military had conducted drills in the East China Sea at a site near the Senkakus, which China calls Diaoyu.
After an analysis of footage of the drills, the Japanese government concluded that video images taken during a separate drill at a different site were used in the announcement.
Subsequently, the Japanese government remains cautious about what Chinese authorities say on developments concerning the ADIZ.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera showed skepticism of the veracity of the reports on the Chinese fighter jets’ scramble.
An official close to the SDF said announcements about the scramble represents Beijing’s attempt to project an image of a strong China to the domestic and international audience.
“China cannot afford not to take any action when U.S. military jets fly into the zone,” the official said.
According to the Japanese government, there were no signs to point to the Chinese military spiraling out of control concerning the declaration of the air defense zone. Wording of the event employed in statements from the Chinese foreign ministry and ministry of national defense are coordinated after Beijing's announcement on the zone on Nov. 23.
Both Tokyo and Washington believe that there is little chance that China will back down and cancel the zone, given that Beijing called the establishment of it as national policy.
But when it comes to the air defense capabilities of China, there is no denying that they lag far behind those of the combined forces of Japan and the United States.
U.S. F-15 fighter aircraft are deployed at the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture. In the event of a contingency, F-22 stealth fighters can arrive at the base in about half a day.
In addition, the U.S. Air Force’s comprehensive strength is massive, and its pilots are well trained. The Air Force can bolster its monitoring activities by flying early warning aircraft equipped with advanced radar systems.
“The Chinese military will be no match,” said a defense analyst.
On the Japanese side, F-15 fighters, the mainstay of the Air SDF, are undergoing upgrades to modernize them.
In contrast, the Chinese air force is believed to lack a sophisticated radar system and the ability to expand the range of its aircraft through air-to-air refueling.
In July, Chinese early warning aircraft reached the Pacific for the first time by way of flying over Japan’s southwestern Nansei Islands, which include the Senkakus.
Analysis by SDF officials, however, show that the Chinese military has yet to obtain the capability to dispatch fighter jets to the region.
In recent years, China has built up its armed forces. The nation’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, conducted its first drill on the high seas in November.
If the Chinese military achieves the capability to have the vessel freely navigate through the East China Sea, military tensions between Japan and China will significantly intensify, according to a senior SDF official.
(This article was compiled from reports written by Nanae Kurashige in Beijing and Yoshihiro Makino in Tokyo.)
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