Three days after China announced that it had extended its vital airspace to include a disputed portion of the East China Sea, the United States sent two military planes into the area, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Analysts said the sorties could only be seen as a direct challenge to China’s claim Saturday over the area, which is also claimed by Japan.
Japan’s two largest airlines, ANA and Japan Airlines, said they would no longer report their flight plans, an indication of worsening tensions over a tiny chain of islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyo but that the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku.
“We urge China to revoke this measure, which is in no way binding on Japan,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Japanese parliamentary committee, according to the Bloomberg news agency.
Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Defense Department spokesman, said the flights, which passed over the islands Tuesday local time, were routine training missions that had been planned before China announced that it was including the islands in its “air defense identification zone.”
“It was a training mission that we scheduled prior to the (Chinese) establishment of that zone,” said Crosson, who said the planes came from the U.S. territory of Guam, home to Andersen Air Force Base.
Crosson declined to confirm reports that the planes were B-52 bombers. Squadrons of B-2 bombers and B-52 aircraft rotate in four-month deployments at Andersen to maintain a constant U.S. bomber presence at the key mid-Pacific forward operating base.
Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said there was little doubt that the United States could have changed the flight training route but had decided to send China a message that Washington doesn’t accept its unilateral expansion of its vital airspace.
“The United States is going to resist any Chinese encroachment on traditionally open skies or seas,” Thompson said. “This may have been only a training mission, but Beijing will interpret it as an American challenge to the Chinese assertion of sovereignty.”
He added: “There’s a high likelihood that the Pentagon was trying to send that message.”
Japan controlled the eight islands from 1895 to 1945, when they were transferred to U.S. administration at the end of World War II. Japan resumed control in 1972, but China began to assert its claim after oil was discovered beneath the islands in 1968.
“If the planes on this mission were B-52 bombers, that would increase the Chinese suspicion that the United States was challenging their assertion of sovereignty (over the islands), because the B-52s are long-range strike aircraft,” Thompson said.
Only a short distance off China’s eastern coast, the islands, Beijing says, were originally claimed by China in the 14th century. The islands are near the southern coasts of Japan and South Korea, slightly farther away from those countries than from China.
Crosson said the U.S. planes flew from Guam to the islands and then back to Guam, a distance of almost 6,000 miles, requiring a midair refueling.
Partly in response to China’s growing military power, Japan two years ago and South Korea last week announced plans to buy dozens of F-35s, the next-generation stealth fighter jets being built by Lockheed Martin.
“Chinese radars cannot track F-35s due to its stealthy design,” Thompson said. “That means China will not have effective air defense against Japan and South Korea’s future fighters. The plane literally cannot be tracked.”
Thompson said he expects the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, stacked on top of each other at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, to be the site of more frequent displays of force in the future.
“What this episode shows is that there are likely to be many confrontations and many misunderstandings as China seeks to expand its influence at the expense of other countries in the region,” Thompson said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the islands' names and the spelling of Crosson.