WASHINGTON, DC — Two of the biggest US airlines, American and Delta, have notified Chinese authorities of flight plans when traveling through an air defense zone Beijing has declared over the East China Sea, in line with US government advice.
A spokesman for Delta Airlines said yesterday it had been complying with the Chinese requests for flight plans for the past week. American Airlines said it was also complying, but declined to say for how long it had done so.
The United States said on Friday it expected US carriers to operate in line with so-called notices to airmen issued by foreign countries, although it added that the decision did “not indicate US government acceptance of China’s requirements.”
Airline industry officials said the US government generally expects that US carriers operating internationally to comply with notices issued by foreign countries.
In contrast, two major airlines in Japan, the US’ close ally, have agreed with the Japanese government that they would fly through the zone without notifying China.
China published coordinates for the zone last weekend. The area, about two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom, covers most of the East China Sea and the skies over a group of uninhabited islands at the centre of a bitter row between Beijing and Tokyo.
Beijing wants all foreign aircraft passing through the zone, including passenger planes, to identify themselves to Chinese authorities.
China’s declaration of the zone represents a historic challenge by the emerging new world power to the United States, which has dominated the region for decades.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have defied the Chinese move by flying military aircraft, including giant US B-52 bombers, through the zone without informing Beijing.
An official of the US administration said China’s action appeared to be a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea, which could “increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents.”
“We urge the Chinese to exercise caution and restraint, and we are consulting with Japan and other affected parties throughout the region,” the official said.
On Friday, China scrambled jets after two US spy planes and 10 Japanese aircraft, including F-15 fighters, entered the zone, China’s state news agency Xinhua said. The jets were scrambled for effective monitoring, it quoted air force spokesman Shen Jinke as saying.
The Chinese patrol mission, conducted on Thursday, was “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices,” Shen said, according to Xinhua.
“China’s air force is on high alert and will take measures to deal with diverse air threats to firmly protect the security of the country’s airspace,” he said.
However, Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said it was “incorrect” to suggest China would shoot down aircraft which entered the zone without first identifying themselves. He did not elaborate.
US flights were “routinely” transiting the zone, US officials said on Friday. Flights in the past week included a training mission for two unarmed B-52 bombers.
“These flights are consistent with long standing and well known US freedom of navigation policies,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said. “I can confirm that the US has and will continue to operate in the area as normal.”
A US defense official said routine operations included reconnaissance and surveillance flights.
Japanese carriers ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines have flown through the zone without informing China. Neither airline has experienced problems.
The airlines said they were sticking with the policy even after Washington advised US commercial airlines to notify China when they fly through the zone.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday there had been no impact on the safe operation of international civilian flights since the zone had come into force, although China “hoped” airlines would co-operate.
Ties between China and Japan have been strained for months by the dispute over the islands, called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan.
Mutual mistrust over military intentions and what China feels is Japan’s lack of contrition over its brutal occupation of parts of China before and during World War Two have added to tension.