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U.S. asks commercial carriers to notify China of flights in disputed area
While the United States continued to defy China by sending military planes into the zone unannounced Friday, administration officials said they expected commercial and other civilian planes to adhere to China’s new rules out of fear of an unintended confrontation.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — On the same day China scrambled fighter jets to enforce its newly declared air-defense zone, the Obama administration decided to advise U.S. commercial airlines Friday to comply with China’s demands to be notified in advance of flights through the area.
While the United States continued to defy China by sending military planes into the zone unannounced Friday, administration officials said they expected civilian planes to adhere to China’s new rules out of fear of an unintended confrontation.
Although the officials made clear the administration rejects China’s control of the airspace over a large area of the East China Sea, the guidance to the civilian airlines could be interpreted in the region as a concession in the battle of wills with China.
“The U.S. government generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with” notice requirements “issued by foreign countries,” the State Department said, adding that that “does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China’s requirements.”
The decision contrasted with that of Japan’s government this week, when it asked its airlines, which were voluntarily following China’s rules, to stop for fear that doing so would add legitimacy to Chinese claims to control the airspace above islands claimed by both countries. China’s newly declared air-defense zone, experts say, is designed mainly to whittle away at Japan’s hold on the islands, which it has long administered.
The two countries have been at odds for years over the uninhabited islands known as Diaoyu by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese. Japan administers the islands, but China also claims them, and its newly declared air zone includes the space above them. South Korea also claims some territory under the zone.
The United States does not take a position on the dispute, but it has said an attack over the islands would be covered by its mutual-defense treaty with Japan.
It was not clear if the Obama administration had notified Japan, a close ally, of its decision, and a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said: “We will not comment [on] what other countries are doing with regard to filing flight plans.”
The U.S. announcement came just hours after Chinese state news media said China sent jets that identified two U.S. surveillance planes and 10 Japanese aircraft in the air-defense zone the country declared last weekend. Although there was no indication China’s air force showed any hostile intent, the move raised tensions.
Earlier in the week, the U.S. sent unarmed B-52s into the area, and they proceeded unimpeded.
China’s move thrust the United States into the middle of the prickly territorial clash between Beijing and Tokyo, a position the Obama administration had avoided for months even while reiterating that it was treaty-bound to defend Japan if it were ever attacked. After the declaration last weekend, U.S. officials feared that if left unchallenged, the Chinese action would lead to ever greater claims elsewhere in the Pacific region.
But with planes flying so fast and in such proximity, the administration’s worries grew that an accident or an unintended confrontation could spiral out of control.
“Crowded air lanes increase the chances for an unwanted incident,” said Jon Huntsman Jr., President Obama’s first ambassador to China.
Administration officials said they decided to proceed with routine surveillance flights so as not to legitimize China’s assertion and not to encourage it to establish a similar air zone over the South China Sea, where it has similar territorial disputes with Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.