Expressions of concern by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – who reminded China of U.S. defense treaty obligations to Japan – brought a terse response from Beijing, and a senior diplomat, Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang, lodged a complaint with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke on Sunday.
Confirming the complaint, a foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the U.S. should stop choosing sides in the dispute and “make no more inappropriate remarks.”
China says the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) will allow it to identify, monitor, and if necessary, take “defensive measures” against any flying objects entering what it calls its airspace. The announcement took immediate effect, and Japanese media said Chinese air force jets began to patrol the area late on Saturday.
The ADIZ aims “to protect China’s state sovereignty and territorial and airspace safety,” Qin said.
It targets no specific nation “and will not affect the freedom of over-flight in relevant airspace,” he added.
Qin reiterated China’s claims to the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, adding that China “will firmly defend the territorial sovereignty.”
Chinese official media argued that the zone conforms with international law, and some pointed out that an ADIZ is in place over the much of North America.
“Actually, the establishment of the air zone is not only perfectly legitimate, but also in line with current international practice,” the Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.
“An air defense identification zone is established by a maritime nation to guard against potential air threats. Since the 1950s, more than 20 countries, including the United States, Australia, Germany and Japan itself, have successively established such zones.”
But Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out a key difference – the North American ADIZ covers American airspace.
“We don’t support efforts by any state to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace,” Kerry said in a statement.
“The United States does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace. We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”
Kerry called the Chinese announcement an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea, warning that “escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident.”
Situated about halfway between the Chinese mainland and Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been under disputed Japanese control since the late 19th century.
Tensions in the area have periodically risen over recent years, with Chinese and Japanese ships coming within close proximity of each other in the area, and sending aircraft to overfly the islands.
U.S. policy is that it does not back either country’s claim to the islands, but Washington has also made it clear since 2004 that it regards the islands as falling within the scope of Article Five of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
The article states that, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Hagel underlined that position in a weekend statement voicing deep concern about the Chinese move
“The United States is conveying these concerns to China through diplomatic and military channels, and we are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan,” he said.
“We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”
In its response to the Chinese announcement, the Japanese government warned that it was “very dangerous” and likely to worsen already difficult ties. Japan would “never accept” China’s move, foreign ministry official Junichi Ihara stated.
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin said Japan’s comments were “groundless and utterly wrong, and China firmly opposes them.”
China’s determination to safeguard its claimed sovereignty over the islands was “unwavering,” he added.