Japan, US Hold Air Drills amid North Korea Tensions

Korea

Japan and the United States carried out on Saturday joint air drills above the East China Sea, Japan’s Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) said.

Amid simmering tensions with North Korea over its recent missile tests, Japanese F-15 fighter jets conducted an air exercise with US B1-B bombers.

The exercise involved two US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flying from Andersen Air Force Base on the US Pacific island territory of Guam, which were joined by two Japanese F-15 jet fighters.

The joint drill also comes as South Korea braces for a possible further missile test by North Korea as it marked its founding anniversary, just days after its sixth and largest nuclear test rattled global financial markets and further escalated tensions in the region.

On August 31, Japanese F-15 fighter jets also conducted an air exercise with US B1-B bombers and F-35 stealth fighters in skies south of the Korean peninsula, two days after North Korea launched a ballistic missile over northern Japan.

Earlier, the US called for a vote Monday on a United Nations resolution that would impose the toughest-ever sanctions on North Korea, a move that could lead to a showdown with the country’s biggest trading partner China and its neighbor Russia.

The Trump administration adopted a totally new approach with this resolution, circulating an American draft Tuesday and setting a vote six days later. With previous sanctions resolutions, the US spent weeks and sometimes months negotiating the text with China and then presenting a resolution to the rest of the Security Council for a vote.

Several diplomats said the US demand for a speedy council vote was aimed at putting maximum pressure on China and reflected Washington’s escalating concern over North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which its leaders touted as a hydrogen bomb, and its recent ballistic missile launch over Japan.

Britain’s UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, who backs “robust” new sanctions, said Thursday that the US proposals to ban all oil imports and textile exports and prohibit North Koreans from working overseas — which helps fund and fuel the country’s nuclear and missile programs — are “a proportionate response” to its “illegal and reckless behavior.”

Rycroft stressed that “maximum possible pressure” must be exerted on North Korea to change course and give diplomacy a chance to end the crisis.

The proposed US sanctions would also freeze all foreign financial assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong Un. The US draft also identified nine ships that have carried out activities prohibited by previous UN resolutions and would authorize any UN member state to stop these vessels on the high seas without their consent and use “all necessary measures” — which in UN language includes force — to carry out an inspection and direct the vessel to a port.

The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions on the resolution have been private, said all 15 Security Council members discussed the draft on Friday, and both China and Russia appeared willing to negotiate.

Russia has said sanctions aren’t working and President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that a total oil cutoff could hurt the North Korean people. Beijing and Moscow have called for a resolution that focuses on a political solution and have proposed a freeze-for-freeze that would halt North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US and South Korea halting their joint military exercises — an initiative rejected by the Trump administration.

There was no word on the outcome of negotiations, and whether any changes sought by the Russians and Chinese were acceptable to the United States.

A brief statement from the US Mission to the United Nations late Friday said: “This evening, the United States informed the UN Security Council that it intends to call a meeting to vote on a draft resolution to establish additional sanctions on North Korea on Monday, September 11.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who called the nuclear risk in North Korea the most dangerous crisis in the world today, told reporters Tuesday that “the unity of the Security Council is absolutely crucial.” He explained that only a united council can provide the pressure needed to enable successful negotiations to take place to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

As for the North Koreans, their official news agency on Friday said the country’s “nuclear weaponization … has reached its final phase.”

The KCNA report sharply criticized US Ambassador Nikki Haley for playing “the flagship role” in the Trump administration’s “hideous sanctions and pressure racket against the DPRK.”

The agency called Haley “a political prostitute” and dismissed as “rubbish” her comments at an emergency Security Council meeting Monday following the latest nuclear test that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “begging for a war.” The agency accused the US of being the “chieftain of aggression and war and wrecker of peace.”

The US Mission to the United Nations said it had no comment on the KCNA report, which concluded by saying: “The US administration will have to pay a dear price for her tongue-lashing.”

US Accuses Beijing of ‘Unprofessionally’ Intercepting Plane over East China Sea

China

Two Chinese jets intercepted an American radiation-sniffing surveillance plane that was flying over the East China Sea, drawing Washington’s ire that accused Beijing of “unprofessional” behavior.

A pair of Chinese fighter jets conducted an “unprofessional” intercept of the plane, the US Air Force said Friday, the latest in a series of such incidents that have raised US concerns in an already tense region.

On Wednesday, the two Chinese SU-30 jets approached a WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft — a modified Boeing C-135 — conducting a routine mission in international airspace in accordance with international law, Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge said in a statement.

The WC-135 crew characterized the intercept as unprofessional “due to the maneuvers by the Chinese pilot, as well as the speeds and proximity of both aircraft,” Hodge said.

She declined to provide further details and said the issue would be addressed with China through “appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

“We would rather discuss it privately with China,” Hodge said in an email to The Associated Press. “This will allow us to continue building confidence with our Chinese counterparts on expected maneuvering to avoid mishaps.”

China declared an air defense identification zone over a large section of the East China Sea in 2013, a move the US called illegitimate and has refused to recognize.

China has demanded foreign aircraft operating within the zone declare their intentions and follow Chinese instructions. Hodge declined to say whether Wednesday’s incident was within the self-declared Chinese zone.

“US military aircraft routinely transit international airspace throughout the Pacific, including the East China Sea,” she said. “This flight was no exception.”

China’s Ministry of National Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Unexpected and unsafe intercepts involving US and Chinese military aircraft have occurred occasionally over the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety. Although China says it respects freedom of navigation in the strategically vital area, it objects to US military activities, especially the collection of signals intelligence by US craft operating near the coast of its southern island province of Hainan, home to several military installations.

In recent years, the sides have signed a pair of agreements aimed at preventing such encounters from sparking an international crisis, as happened in April 2001 when a Chinese jet fighter collided with a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and China’s detention of the 24 US crew members for 10 days.

On Thursday, Japan scrambled fighter jets after four Chinese coastguard vessels entered what Japan considers its territorial waters near disputed East China Sea islets and a drone-like object flew near one ship, Japan said.

It was the first such flight near the islands witnessed by Japanese officials, although the incident took to 13 the number of intrusions this year by Chinese coastguard ships in the contested waters, Japan’s coastguard said.

Japan and China have long been at loggerheads over the tiny, uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. They are controlled by Japan but claimed also by China.

“This is escalating the situation and absolutely unacceptable,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told a news conference on Friday, referring to the incursion and drone flight.

“We regard this as a serious infringement of Japan’s sovereignty.”

Inada said two F-15 fighter jets, one E-2C early warning aircraft and an AWACS surveillance plane were sent to the scene.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the drone had been released by “relevant media” for aerial photography, rather than by the coast guard, but did not name the organization.

“This is not a military action as has been hyped up by some media,” Hua told a daily news briefing.

Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a stern protest with the Chinese embassy in Tokyo by telephone, a ministry official said.

The Chinese embassy responded to the protest by reiterating China’s stance on the islands, the official added.

China routinely rejects Japanese criticism of such patrols, saying its ships have every right to operate in what China calls its territorial waters.

Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets at Record Pace as China Tensions Simmer

Japan

The Japanese air force has sent fighter jets after foreign aircraft at a record pace in the past year to March 31 revealed government figures amid growing tensions with Beijing over disputed islands in the Easy China Sea and western Pacific.

Japan worries that China’s probing of its air defenses is part of a push to extend its military influence in the East China Sea and western Pacific, where Japan controls an island chain stretching 1,400 km (870 miles) south towards Taiwan.

“Recently we have seen Chinese military aircraft operating further south and that is bringing them closer to the main Okinawa island and other parts of the island chain,” Japan’s top military commander, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, told a briefing in Tokyo.

Okinawa is home to the biggest concentration of US Marine Corp forces outside the United States, hosting the bulk of the roughly 50,000 US military personnel stationed in Japan.

Japan’s Air Self Defense Force reported its fighters scrambled 1,168 times over the 12 months, up from 873 last year. A record 851 jets headed off approaching Chinese planes, or 280 more instances than in the corresponding period last year.

The new figure was also well above the previous high of 944 incidents in 1984, when Russian, rather than Chinese, aircraft triggered most of the scrambles.

The uptick in Chinese activity has contributed to rising tension in East Asia since the start of the year as North Korea pushes ahead with ballistic missile and nuclear bomb tests that have stoked fears in Japan, the United States and elsewhere.

Japan’s navy plans joint drills around the East China Sea with the US Navy’s Carl Vinson carrier strike group, as it steams towards the Korean peninsula, two sources told Reuters.

Encounters with Russian aircraft, which are often bombers flying from the north that skirt around Japan’s airspace, rose 4.5 percent, to 301 scrambles.

Meanwhile, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte cancelled a planned visit to an island the Philippines claims in the disputed South China Sea, after Beijing warned him “of trouble” if he went ahead with the trip.

The brash Philippine leader last week announced his plan to raise the Philippine flag in the island of Thitu and fortify it with barracks, setting off alarm bells.

“Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag,” Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Riyadh late Wednesday.

China claims most of the South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Duterte, who led the warming of ties with China, had blamed the United States for the current maritime tensions for not intervening to stop China building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines will reinforce, but not militarize, areas in the South China Sea controlled by Manila to maintain the geopolitical balance, Duterte said on Monday.

US, China see eye-to-eye on N. Korea, not on maritime disputes

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) greets visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, 14 February 2014. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Beijing as part of his four-nation Asia trip hoping to ease tensions in the region. (Photo: Diego Azubel / EPA POOL)
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) greets visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry before their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, on February 14, 2014. (Diego Azubel/EPA POOL)
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) greets visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry before their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, on February 14, 2014. (Diego Azubel/EPA POOL)

Beijing, AP—US Secretary of State John Kerry ended meetings with Chinese leadership Friday with a “profound sense of optimism,” saying the two countries see eye-to-eye on need for further pressure on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The Chinese “are committed to doing their part to make it happen that they also will not allow instability and war to break out in the region,” Kerry told reporters in Beijing after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Still, the two sides didn’t reach consensus on managing China’s growing assertiveness that has roiled ties with neighbors.

Kerry arrived in Beijing from Seoul on the second stop of a three-nation Asian swing aimed at reassuring allies of a continued US commitment to the region. This visit is his second to China since he became the top US diplomat last year.

“China could not have been more emphatic or made it more clear that they will not allow a nuclear program [in North Korea] over the long run,” Kerry said, adding that the nations exchanged ideas on additional steps to pressure the North to comply with previous agreements to give up its nuclear weapons.

While China saw need for cooperation on North Korea, the United States and its allies failed to secure Chinese guarantees to stop making unilateral claims in maritime disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.

“I reiterated that today and hopefully whatever follows in the future will be done in an open and transparent accountable way that is inclusive about those that may or may not be concerned,” Kerry said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang called on the US to respect its sovereignty in Asia and elsewhere, while agreeing to some degree on the need to legally settle the territorial dispute, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

China is “ready to work with the US” in improving ties and agrees to “properly handle our differences and problems” on the principle of “non-confrontation, non-conflict,” Wang said.

“The world is always waiting to see whether China and the United States can find the common ground despite some differences,” Kerry said. “And I think it’s important to accentuate the places where we can have the greatest impact and set an example for this major-power relationship.”

Tensions on the Korean peninsula peaked last year when North Korea carried out a third nuclear weapons test in defiance of repeated international calls to halt proliferation. China presided at six-nation talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for aid. The negotiations haven’t taken place since 2008. The six parties are North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.

China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, supplying most of the North’s refined fuel and rudimentary banking, which means it “can do more now to urge North Korea to begin taking action, to come into compliance with its international obligations,” Kerry said in Seoul Thursday.

“We believe the process of DPRK denuclearization should be achieved under the framework of the six party talks,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday in response to Kerry’s remarks, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We should do more to relax tension on the peninsula and create favorable conditions for resumption of six-party talks.”

Relations between North and South Korea showed signs of improvement this year after they agreed to revive reunions of families separated by the 1950–1953 Korean War, which technically continues because it ended without a peace treaty. The two sides held talks today in the demilitarized zone for the second time this week and agreed to continue dialog.

Kerry’s visit to the region coincided with a White House announcement of President Barack Obama’s own trip to Asia in April, to include stops in both Japan and South Korea—two US allies feuding over territorial and historical disputes.

It is critical to maintain a “robust trilateral cooperation, particularly in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat,” Kerry said Thursday.

In Beijing, Kerry also reinforced the US position that it’s unwise for China to take actions that disrupt the regional status quo. In addition to territorial claims in the East China Sea, China is embroiled in disputes with several Southeast Asian nations over a large part of the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run.

China in November set up an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea over islands disputed with Japan, demanding that civil and military aircraft present flight plans before entering the space. The US and Japan have continued to run flights through the area without consulting China.

The US has also backed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to reinterpret the country’s postwar pacifist constitution to allow Japan’s defense forces to come to the aid of allies. The move has rankled China and South Korea, which suffered under Japanese occupation through World War II.

The US must be “responsible and unbiased” without any “one-sided appeasement,” if it truly wants to play a constructive role in the region, Xinhua said in a separate editorial Friday.

Japan, ASEAN vow to ensure freedom of navigation

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd R) delivers the opening speech at the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting, a part of Japan-ASEAN Commemorative Summit as (L-R) Thai Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, Myanmar's President Thein Sein, Laos's Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung listen at Akasaka State Guesthouse in Tokyo on December 14, 2013 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / KIMIMASA MAYAMA)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd R) delivers the opening speech at the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting, a part of Japan-ASEAN Commemorative Summit as (L-R) Thai Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, Myanmar's President Thein Sein, Laos's Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung listen at Akasaka State Guesthouse in Tokyo on December 14, 2013 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / KIMIMASA MAYAMA)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd R) delivers the opening speech at the Japan–Mekong Summit Meeting, a part of the Japan–ASEAN Commemorative Summit at Akasaka State Guesthouse in Tokyo on December 14, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/KIMIMASA MAYAMA)

Tokyo, Associated Press—Leaders from Japan and 10 Southeast Asian countries pledged on Saturday to cooperate in ensuring freedom of navigation during a summit overshadowed by concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

A joint statement issued after the summit meeting refrained from an explicit mention of China’s recent declaration of a maritime air defense zone over the East China Sea. But it was the backdrop behind the promise to cooperate to ensure “freedom of overflight and aviation safety in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged China to rescind the zone and said Japan would stick to its decision advising airlines to continue their operations as they had before.

“Raising tensions in this region is to nobody’s advantage,” Abe said in a nationally televised news conference showcasing what he called Japan’s “special partnership” with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The summit marks 40 years of ties between Japan and ASEAN, a resource-rich region of more than 600 million people. Abe has visited all 10 ASEAN countries in the past year, seeking to boost both security and business ties, a warm contrast to frosty relations with China.

Earlier Saturday, Tokyo pledged 20 trillion yen (19.2 billion US dollars) in aid to Southeast Asian nations over the next five years to help close the region’s development gap and improve its disaster preparedness. It also promised another 100 billion dollars to support the Japan–ASEAN Integration Fund.

The Japanese side listed on its “urgent agenda” assistance for improved maritime security and more effective coast guards, help with cyber-security and counterterrorism, closer communications connections and improved disaster preparedness and management.

Much of Asia suffered under Japanese occupation in World War II, and Southeast Asian leaders have been wary of a potential resurgence of Japanese militarism.

But like Japan, several ASEAN countries have territorial disputes with China that remain potential flashpoints.

China’s sudden declaration last month of the air defense zone over islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both Japan and China raised hackles across the region. Some worry China might follow up with a similar zone in contested areas of the South China Sea.

“ASEAN’s role as a center of economic growth depends on freedom of the seas and the air,” Abe said.

Japan has been expanding investments across Southeast Asia, especially since 2012, when anti-Japanese riots flared in China after Tokyo nationalized a group of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.

US airlines give China flight plans for defense zone

The Chinese Defense Ministry on November 23, 2013, issued a map of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone that includes a chain of disputed islands also claimed by Japan, triggering a protest from Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
The Chinese Defense Ministry on November 23, 2013, issued a map of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone that includes a chain of disputed islands also claimed by Japan, triggering a protest from Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

New York/Tokyo, Reuters—US airlines United, 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, following US government advice.

The zone has raised tensions, particularly with Japan and South Korea, and is likely to dominate the agenda of a visit to Asia this week of US Vice President Joe Biden. He will travel to Japan, China, and South Korea and try to ease tensions, senior American officials said.

However, China’s declaration of the zone also represents a historic challenge by the emerging world power to the United States, which has dominated the region for decades.

China published co-ordinates 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 center of a bitter territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.

Beijing wants all foreign aircraft passing through the zone, including passenger planes, to identify themselves to Chinese authorities.

On Friday, the United States said 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.”

A spokesman for Delta Airlines said it had been complying with the Chinese requests for flight plans for the past week. American and United said separately that they were complying, but did not say for how long they had been doing so.

Airline industry officials said the US government generally expected US carriers operating internationally to comply with notices issued by foreign countries.

In contrast, Japanese carriers ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines have flown through the zone without informing China, under an agreement with the Tokyo government. Neither airline has experienced problems.

The airlines said they were sticking with the policy even after Washington’s advice to its carriers.

Any sign that the United States was even tacitly giving a nod to China’s air defense zone would disturb Tokyo, which is hoping for a display of solidarity when Biden visits Japan starting on Monday.

“We will have in-depth talks about it,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted as saying by Japan’s Kyodo news agency. “Japan and the United States will address it in close co-ordination with each other.”

However, he also insisted that the United States had not advised its airlines to comply with Chinese demands for prior notice before their planes enter the new air defense zone.

“We have confirmed through diplomatic channels that the US government didn’t request commercial carriers to submit flight plans,” he was quoted as saying in the Kyodo report.

And Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera insisted the allies were working in lockstep.

“I believe the US government is taking the same stance as the Japanese government,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster NHK.

Separately, Japan’s foreign affairs ministry said it had raised China’s declaration of the air defense zone with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the international aviation regulatory body and an agency of the United Nations.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Japan wanted the agency to do, since it can make no more than non-binding recommendations. But Japan’s action puts the issue before a global and multilateral body.

Since the zone came into force there has been no impact on the safe operation of international civilian flights, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. Still, China “hoped” airlines would co-operate, the ministry said.

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.

A US official 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.

China scrambled jets on Friday 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.

US flights were “routinely” transiting the zone, U.S. officials said on Friday.

“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.

Underlining concern in Seoul over China’s move, a defense spokesman said officials were reviewing the country’s existing air defense zone, but there was no set plan on whether or not to expand it. It already overlaps with China’s new zone in a block 20 km by 115 km, the spokesman said.

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.

Although Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, it recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control and says the US-Japan security pact applies to them.

Japan, S. Korean military planes defy China’s new defence zone

This photo taken on October 13, 2011 shows a P-3C patrol plane of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force flying over the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea (AFP PHOTO / JAPAN POOL via JIJI PRESS JAPAN OUT)

This photo taken on October 13, 2011 shows a P-3C patrol plane of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force flying over the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea (AFP PHOTO / JAPAN POOL via JIJI PRESS JAPAN OUT)
This photo taken on October 13, 2011 shows a P-3C patrol plane of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force flying over the disputed islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in Chinaز (AFP PHOTO/JAPAN POOL via JIJI PRESS JAPAN OUT)
Tokyo/Seoul, Reuters—Japanese and South Korean military aircraft flew through disputed air space over the East China Sea without informing China, officials said on Thursday, challenging a new Chinese air defense zone that has increased regional tensions and sparked concerns of an unintended clash.

The move came after Tokyo’s close ally Washington defied China’s demand that airplanes flying through its unilaterally announced zone identify themselves to Chinese authorities, flying two unarmed B-52 bombers over the islands on Tuesday without informing Beijing.

Tensions have ratcheted up since Beijing’s weekend announcement of the zone that includes the skies over islands at the heart of a feud between Japan and China, and its demand that planes flying in the area first notify Chinese authorities.

Japan and the United States have sharply criticized the move, which some experts said was aimed not only at chipping away at Tokyo’s control of the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, but also at challenging US dominance in the region.

The United States does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands but recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control and has assured Japan that the US–Japan security pact covers them.

The developments are expected to dominate US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan, China and South Korea next week.

Also on Thursday, China rejected South Korea’s demand for the repeal of the zone, but appeared to soften its demand that commercial aircraft tell its military authorities of any plans to transit the area. Japan’s two biggest airlines have already begun defying that order.

“The East China Sea Air Defense Identification zone is not aimed at normal international flights. We hope that relevant countries’ airlines can proactively cooperate, so there is more order and safety for flights,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said naval ships and patrol planes have been operating in the East China Sea and would continue to do so.

“They are carrying out surveillance activity as before in the East China Sea, including the zone,” Suga told a news conference, adding there has been no particular response from China. “We are not going to change this (activity) out of consideration to China,” he added.

A South Korean official also said a navy reconnaissance plane had flown over a submerged rock in the area claimed by both Beijing and Seoul, and that the flights would continue.

The rock, called Ieodo in Korea and Suyan Rock in China, is controlled by South Korea, which maintains a maritime research station built on it.

Asked about the South Korean flight, Chinese spokesman Qin only said that Beijing was aware of it.

South Korea’s reaction to Beijing’s weekend declaration has been somewhat muted, reflecting its efforts to forge closer ties with China and a chill in relations with Japan.

On Thursday, however, Seoul’s vice defense minister told a senior Chinese military official that the move to impose the new rules created military tension in the region and called on Beijing to rectify the zone

“The Chinese reaction was that they will not be accepting the (South) Korean side’s demand,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters after talks between Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo and Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Asked if China would heed Japanese calls to revoke the air defense zone, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said Tokyo had implemented its own zone in 1969 and blamed it for raising tensions with its double standards.

“Japan consistently blames others and smears the name of other countries but never examines its own conduct,” Yang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website after a press briefing that was closed to foreign reporters.

“If they want it revoked, then we would ask that Japan first revoke its own air defense identification zone and China will reconsider it after 44 years,” Yang said.

Japan says it only requires planes headed for its territorial air space to notify authorities, not those merely transiting through its air defense identification zone.

In the ongoing war of words, the policy panel of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party approved a resolution on Thursday demanding China rescind the new air defense zone, saying the unilateral move reflected “unreasonable expansionism”. But the resolution dropped a more inflammatory reference to “pre-modern and imperialist expansionism” contained in an earlier draft.

Leaders of China, Japan hold ‘brief talk’ at G20

General view of the first working session of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/SERGEI KARPUKHIN)

General view of the first working session of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/SERGEI KARPUKHIN)
General view of the first working session of the G20 summit on September 5, 2013, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (AFP PHOTO/POOL/SERGEI KARPUKHIN)
Beijing, AP—Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke briefly with his Japanese counterpart at the Group of 20 summit in Russia, in the first contact between the two leaders amid yearlong tensions over disputed islands, state media reported Friday.

China had earlier ruled out the possibility of a meeting between the two on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg summit. China has put relations with Japan in the deep freeze since last September when Tokyo nationalized a group of islands claimed by China.

However, the official Xinhua News Agency said Xi met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a VIP room on Thursday for a “brief talk.”

Xinhua said Xi told the Japanese leader that ties between their nations were facing “grave difficulties,” and that Japan should “correctly deal” with sensitive issues such as the islands dispute. Problems should be handled “in line with the spirit of facing history squarely and looking forward to the future so as to seek a way to properly manage differences,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

It said that Abe responded by saying he was “eager to improve Japanese–Chinese relations.”

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said the meeting lasted about five minutes and the two remained standing the entire time, apparently to emphasize its impromptu nature.

The newspaper said the men reiterated their basic positions, albeit in a polite manner, and that Abe said bilateral relations should develop “on a strategic basis.”

While brief and informal, the exchange was the first the two have had since Abe returned as prime minister and Xi took over as head of the ruling Communist Party last year. While unlikely to bring an immediate end to the tensions, it appeared to be a sign that Xi does not want a further deterioration in ties.

Chinese anger at Japan’s move to buy the tiny, uninhabited islets in the East China Sea sparked violent protests and destruction of Japanese property in several Chinese cities. Beijing also began sending patrol ships to confront Japanese vessels in waters surrounding the islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

While tensions have receded somewhat in recent months, China has yet to restore regular contacts and it called in the Japanese ambassador last month to protest over visits by Japanese ministers to a Tokyo shrine at which fallen soldiers, including convicted war criminals, are worshipped.