WSJ: U.S. Sends B-52s on Mission to Challenge Chinese Claims

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November 28, 2013 by Water Wisdom

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303281504579221993719005178

By

JULIAN E. BARNES in Washington and
JEREMY PAGE in Beijing

CONNECT

Updated Nov. 27, 2013 5:00 a.m. ET

The U.S. moved forcefully to try to counter China’s bid for influence over increasingly jittery Asian neighbors by sending a pair of B-52 bombers over disputed islands in the East China Sea, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. military countered China’s latest move to lay claim to disputed islands with the establishment of an air defense zone in the East China Sea by flying B-52 bombers over the area. Paul Burton, Asia-Pacific director at IHS, tells Deborah Kan why this move has escalated tensions in the region.

The B-52s took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and flew more than 1,500 miles northwest, crossing into what China has declared as its new air-defense identification zone, at about 7 p.m. ET Monday. The U.S. deliberately violated rules set by China by refusing to inform Beijing about the flight, officials said.

The U.S. moved to try to counter China’s bid for influence over increasingly jittery Asian neighbors by sending a pair of B-52 bombers over disputed islands in the East China Sea. There has been a muted response from China, Jeremy Page reports. Photo: Getty Images.

China had warned of military action against aircraft entering the zone without notification, but didn’t respond to the B-52s, which weren’t armed and were part of a long-planned military exercise. A U.S. official said there was no attempt by the Chinese military to contact the B-52s. “The flight was without incident,” a U.S. official said.

Wednesday morning, in Beijing’s first public comment on the flight, the Ministry of National Defense said in a faxed response to The Wall Street Journal that the Chinese military monitored and identified the U.S. aircraft. It also said that China would identify all aircraft entering the zone and has the capability to exercise “effective control” of the zone.

The ministry said the U.S. military aircraft had flown on the eastern edge of the new Chinese zone, about 120 miles from the disputed islands.

A pair of American B-52 bombers flew over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea without informing Beijing in a direct challenge to China and its establishment of an expanded air defense zone. Julian Barnes reports on the News Hub. Photo: Getty Images.

By challenging a direct military warning, the U.S. flight risked a potentially destabilizing response by the Chinese. But the move also may have calmed tensions in the region by reassuring U.S. allies and keeping tempers in check in Japan, South Korea or other countries, Pentagon officials and defense analysts said.

The U.S. test was the outgrowth of months of growing tension in which China and its smaller neighbors have been jostling for control of waters with plentiful fishing stocks and potentially rich hydrocarbon reserves in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Beijing and Tokyo have competing claims to a group of islands in the East China Sea, and China moved over the weekend to solidify its standing by declaring the air-defense zone, which encompasses the disputed islands, requiring aircraft to report in before entering the zone.

The U.S. and key Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, criticized the requirements as a power grab by Beijing, and the Pentagon vowed to show it wouldn’t be bound by them.

That demonstration came when the B-52s flew over the area without the required notification to Beijing.

U.S. officials stressed that both the exercise and flight path were long planned. A senior defense official said that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was briefed on the exercise, had made clear over the weekend that the U.S. should continue to fly over the islands.

There was little debate in the Pentagon about canceling the exercise or adjusting its flight path. Changing the exercise, the official said, would make it appear that Mr. Hagel was backing down and that the U.S. was acquiescing to the new zone.

U.S. defense officials said there would be further military exercises in the area, and acknowledged it is possible that China could attempt to contact or intercept the aircraft involved in future flights.

Officials said the military’s Pacific Command routinely prepares for contingencies, but that planners didn’t think it was likely that China would attempt to challenge the flight.

U.S. military planes often ignore the air-defense zones of non-allied countries, and frequently respond to any radio hail by asserting the right to operate in an international air space.

In Japan, commercial air carriers were caught in the middle, with Tokyo pressuring them to ignore China’s request for cooperation. Japan’s aviation authorities Tuesday ordered the national airline association to disregard a Chinese request for the flight plans of all flights that pass over the area in dispute.

China moved to impose new rules on airspace over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea.kyodo/Reuters

Japan’s move shows that Tokyo is determined to take a tough line in the territorial dispute.

“China’s measures have no validity in our country,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a news conference Tuesday evening. “We can’t accept a step that imposes unfair obligations on airplanes that fly in the zone set by China.”

Earlier Tuesday in Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that China’s new zone wouldn’t affect regular international civilian flights, according to a transcript on the Foreign Ministry website.

Asked if China would take military action against aircraft that didn’t comply with its demands in the zone, the spokesman, Qin Gang, said: “It was written very clearly in the announcement. With regard to the question you’ve asked, the Chinese side will make an appropriate response according to the different circumstances and the threat level that it might face.”

China’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that the Chinese military would take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that didn’t obey the rules in the new zone. It didn’t specify what those measures would be.

The establishment of the new zone was certain to have been approved by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, who became military chief at the same time as taking over as head of the Communist Party in November last year, analysts and diplomats said.

But some analysts now believe that China might have overplayed its hand by angering not just Japan and the U.S., but South Korea and Taiwan—both of which have air-defense zones that overlap China’s—and several other countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

They see the move as part of a long-term strategy by China to try to gradually change the status quo in the East China Sea, and make it increasingly costly for Japan to enforce its claims, without crossing the lines that might provoke military conflict.

There have been inadvertent collisions between U.S. surveillance ships and planes and Chinese forces. In 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, forcing the American plane down on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

American officials worried that without a U.S. challenge of the zone, Tokyo might feel it necessary to mount a more direct challenge to increased Chinese presence around the disputed islands.

“The U.S. has been measured in its response to the island dispute, but very clear that the U.S. recognizes that Japan has administrative control of the islands,” said Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm. “There is a perception that because we have more engagement that the geopolitical risk is increasing. While there is a new risk element surrounding the question on how China will enforce the air-defense zone, the broader story is how the U.S. presence will be a mitigating variable.”

The U.S. has stepped up exercises with B-52s in the region this year, largely to reassure allies. In March, the U.S. conducted an exercise in South Korea using the B-52s, and later followed up with a flight of B-2 bombers.

The flight of the B-52s, based at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, was part of a long-planned exercise called Coral Lightning. The bombers weren’t accompanied by escort planes.

Officials said the training exercise wasn’t specifically related to the defense of the disputed islands, but was instead a more generalized defensive exercise.

The U.S. notified Japan of the flight. The B-52s entered Japan’s long-established air-defense identification zone as part of the flight, and the U.S. was in contact with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, officials said.

U.S. officials said they believe they had to challenge the air-defense zone to make clear they don’t consider its establishment appropriate or in the interest of regional stability.

The White House said Tuesday that the territorial dispute between China and Japan should be solved diplomatically. “The policy announced by the Chinese over the weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in California, where President Barack Obama was traveling.

China’s official Xinhua news agency announced earlier Tuesday that the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was making its maiden voyage to the South China Sea, where China is also embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The Liaoning left its homeport of Qingdao in eastern China on Tuesday and was being escorted by two destroyers and two frigates to the South China Sea where it would conduct training exercises, Xinhua said.

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said Saturday that China was planning to establish more ADIZs, and many analysts expect one of them to be over the South China Sea, where China’s claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

China had made some progress in easing tensions over the South China Sea in recent months with a charm offensive in Southeast Asia that was helped by President Obama’s failure to attend a regional summit in Brunei in October because of the U.S. government shutdown.

That was seen by many Asian governments as a sign of declining U.S. influence, despite its pledge to refocus military and other resources on the region as part of a so-called “pivot” toward Asia.

Beijing’s progress was undermined in the eyes of many, however, when it initially announced a donation of just $100,000 to help victims of a devastating typhoon in the Philippines, while the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to spearhead the relief effort.

国官员周二表示,美国派出了两架B-52轰炸机飞过东中国海(中国称东海)争议岛屿上空,采取这一强硬措施是为了阻止中国努力获取对其越来越紧张不安的亚洲邻国的影响力。

美东时间周二下午7点左右,这两架B-52轰炸机从关岛安德森空军基地(Anderson Air Force Base)起飞,朝西北方向飞行了1,500多英里,进入了中国新划定的防空识别区。美国官员称,美方刻意违反中国的相关规定,未就本次飞行知会中方。

中国曾警告称可能对任何未事先通知而进入该识别区的飞行器采取军事行动,但本次并没有对这两架B-52轰炸机作出反应。据悉,这两架飞机没有装弹,而且本次飞行是计划已久的一个军事演习的一部分。一位美国官员表示,中国军方未试图与这两架B-52轰炸机取得联系,此次飞行没有出现意外。

周三上午,中国国防部在通过传真发给《华尔街日报》(The Wall Street Journal)的答覆中称,中国军队对美军飞机进行了全程监视、及时识别。还称,中国将对在东海防空识别区内的任何航空器的活动进行识别,中方有能力对相关空域实施有效管控。这是中国官方首次就这一事件公开发表评论。

中国国防部称,美军飞机沿东海防空识别区东部边缘南北方向往返飞行,位钓鱼岛以东约200公里活动。

美国国防部官员和国防专家表示,美国飞机的此次飞行挑战了中国的直接军事警告,可能会引发中国作出或导致地区不稳定的反应;但此举可能也会打消美国盟国的疑虑,使日本、韩国及其他国家保持克制,从而缓和该地区的紧张情绪。

美国的这一试探举措是数月来中国与邻国紧张关系不断升级的结果。对于东中国海和南中国海(中国称南海)渔业资源充足并可能有丰富油气资源的水域,中国与周边邻国一直在争夺控制权。

中国和日本都宣称对东中国海的一组岛屿拥有主权。中国在周末强化了自己的立场,宣布划定防空识别区——涵盖了相关争议岛屿,要求飞行器在进入该识别区之前告知中国。

美国与包括日本和韩国在内的主要亚洲盟国谴责中国提出上述要求是夺取权力的做法。美国国防部誓言要向世人展示,美方不会受此约束。

美国两架B-52轰炸机在未遵照要求、通知中方的情况下飞越中国防空识别区就是证明。

美国官员强调说,军事演习和飞行路线都是早已计划好的。一位高级国防官员称,美国国防部长哈格尔(Chuck Hagel)在上周末明确表示,美国应继续飞越中国防空识别区所覆盖的争议岛屿。

美国五角大楼也几乎没有讨论要取消军事演习或调整飞行路线。上述官员称,如果调整演习计划,则会造成哈格尔作出让步且美国默许中国新防空识别区的错觉。

美国国防官员称,美军将在该识别区进行更多军事演习,并承认中国可能会尝试联系或拦截参与未来飞行计划的飞机。

官员们称,美军太平洋司令部会定期为突发事件做准备,但该部认为中国不太可能尝试挑战美军飞机。

美军飞机通常会无视非联盟国家的防空区,对于非联盟国家发出的各种无线电呼叫信号,美军经常会以在国际空域享有飞行权作为回应。

在日本,商业航空公司的处境左右为难,日本政府呼吁国内航空公司不要理会中国关于配合防空识别区的要求。日本航空监管机构周二发布指令,要求全国航空协会不要理睬中方对于外国航空公司飞越识别区须提交飞行计划书的要求。

日本此举表明,东京方面决意在领土争端问题上采取强硬立场。

日本内阁官房长官菅义伟(Yoshihide Suga)在周二晚间的新闻发布会上表示,中国新设的防空识别区在日本是无效的,对于让飞越中国所划识别区的飞机承担不公平义务的举措,日方不能接受。

中国外交部网站上的信息显示,外交部发言人秦刚周二早些时候在北京表示,外国国际航班在东海防空识别区内的正常飞行活动不会受到任何影响。

在被问及如果外国民航飞机不遵守中方公布的东海防空识别区相关规则,中方会不会使用武装力量应对的问题时,秦刚说,公告里面已经写得很明确了,对于这个问题,中方将根据不同的情况以及可能面临的威胁程度作出相应的反应。

中国国防部上周六表示,对于不配合识别或者拒不服从指令的航空器,中国武装力量将采取防御性紧急处置措施。但它没有具体提及是哪些措施。

分析人士和外交人士说,防空识别区的划设毫无疑问经过了中国新领导人习近平的批准。习近平在去年11月份当选中共中央总书记的同时一当选中央军委主席。

但一些分析人士现在认为,中国大陆这次可能做得有些过头,不仅激怒了日本和美国,也惹怒了同样与中国大陆存在防空识别区重叠问题的韩国和台湾,以及其他几个在南中国海与中国大陆存在领土争端的国家。

分析人士认为,划设防空识别区这一举动是中国试图逐渐改变东中国海现状的长期战略的一部分,希望令日本维护其领土主张的成本越来越高,但中国也不会越过红线,否则可能引发真正的军事冲突。

美国侦察船和飞机与中国军队发生过意外相撞事件。2001年,一架中国战斗机与一架美国海军EP-3侦察机相撞,美国飞机被迫降落在位于南中国海的海南岛上。

kyodo/Reuters
中国划设防空识别区,为东中国海存在领土争议岛屿上方的空域设定新规则。

美国官员担心,如果美国不挑战中国防空识别区,东京可能感觉有必要对中国在争议岛屿附近增强的军事部署提出更直接的挑战。

研究顾问公司欧亚集团(Eurasia Group)的康索纳利(Nicholas Consonery)说,美国对中日岛屿争端的反应是经过慎重考虑后做出的,但很显然,美国承认日本对争议岛屿拥有行政控制权。有一种观点认为,由于我们的更多参与,地缘政治风险正在上升。尽管围绕中国将如何实施防空识别区的问题出现了一个新的风险因素,但更广泛的问题是美国的军事部署将如何成为一个缓解紧张形势的可变因素。

美国今年一直在加强B-52轰炸机在该地区的演习,很大程度上是为了消除盟友的担忧。今年3月,美国使用B-52轰炸机在韩国进行了一场演习,随后B-2轰炸机也进行了演练。

这两架B-52轰炸机属关岛安德森空军基地(Andersen Air Force Base),此次飞行是计划已久的一个名为“珊瑚闪电”(Coral Lightning)的军事演练的一部分。两架轰炸机没有其它飞机护航。

官员们说,这次的演习并不是针对争议岛屿的防御,而是一次更一般性的防御演习。

美国向日本通报了此次飞行计划。官员们说,作为飞行任务的一部分,B-52轰炸机进入了日本设立已久的防空识别区,美国与日本自卫队(Self-Defense Forces)保持着联系。

美国官员说,他们认为美国不得不挑战中国划定的防空识别区,藉此向中方表明美国认为中方此举欠妥,也不利于地区稳定。

美国白宫周二说,中国与日本之间的领土争端应该通过外交途径解决。白宫发言人厄内斯特(Josh Earnest)在加利福尼亚对记者说,中国在周末宣布的这项政策具有不必要的煽动性。美国总统奥巴马(Barack Obama)目前正在加利福尼亚。

新华社周二早些时候报道,中国首艘航母辽宁舰将首赴南中国海争议水域进行训练。在南中国海,中国与邻国也存在领土争端。

新华社称,辽宁舰周二从山东青岛某军港启航,在两艘海军导弹驱逐舰和两艘导弹护卫舰的伴随下赴南中国海开始科研试验和训练。

中国国防部一位发言人上周六表示,中国将在完成相关准备工作后,适时设立其他防空识别区。许多分析人士预计,其中一个将是南中国海防空识别区。中国在南中国海与越南、菲律宾、马来西亚、文莱和台湾存在领土领海主权争议。

最近几个月中国在缓解南中国海地区紧张局势方面取得了一些进展。10月份美国总统奥巴马因政府关门未能出席在文莱举行的地区峰会,中国借机在东南亚发动外交魅力攻势。

许多亚洲政府将此视为美国影响力减弱的一个迹象,尽管美国承诺要把军事和其他资源的重心重新转向亚洲地区。

但在许多人看来,中国取得的上述进展因其对菲律宾的援助立场而受到削弱。中国最初只宣布向受台风“海燕”重创的菲律宾援助10万美元,而美国则派出了一艘航母前往菲律宾救灾。

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