WASHINGTON – After an internal debate, the Obama administration has decided to tell U.S. commercial airlines to comply with China’s demands to be notified of any flights through a broad swath of international airspace that it has claimed as an air defense zone, officials said Friday.
Even as the United States continued to send military planes into the zone in defiance of China’s declaration, officials said they expected civilian planes to go along with Beijing’s new demands out of an abundance of caution. Officials said they were worried about an accident or unintended confrontation that could endanger civilian passengers. The administration’s decision came hours after China said it had scrambled fighter jets for the first time since declaring the zone last week, a move that was seen by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States as provocative.
The caution reflected in the administration’s decision contrasted with that by Japan’s government, which told its civilian airlines not to abide by the Chinese rules after they initially began to comply voluntarily.
China’s assertion of jurisdiction over the airspace, designed to bolster its claim to islands administered by Japan, is not recognized by any of the major powers in the region, but the U.S. decision may irritate Tokyo.
Earlier Friday, in announcing that it had scrambled jets, China said it had identified two U.S. surveillance planes and 10 Japanese aircraft in its newly declared air defense zone
Although there was no indication that China’s air force showed any hostile intent, the move, reported by official news agencies, ratcheted up tensions in a long-simmering dispute between Japan and China that could lead to a military miscalculation that some fear could spiral out of control.
The United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan if it is attacked, directly entered the fray this week by sending unarmed B-52s into the contested airspace, defying Chinese demands that all aircraft notify the Chinese that they were coming in advance or face possible military action. The dispute between China and Japan centers on uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The new air defense zone includes airspace above the islands.
Analysts believe that China’s intent in declaring control was not to force a conflict, but to try to build a case that it has as much claim to the islands as Japan, which has long administered them.
Many countries, including the United States and Japan, have air defense zones, but the coordinates of the Chinese zone overlap with parts of the Japanese zone, setting up what defense experts have called a dangerous situation in the airspace above the disputed islands. A U.S. surveillance plane was involved in a major diplomatic incident between China and the United States in 2001 when it collided with a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing in southern China, an accident that badly damaged relations.