China sends fighter jets to disputed air zone

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China on Thursday sent fighter jets into its controversial new air defence zone, further escalating tensions in the East China Sea that have also drawn in the US.

Colonel Shen Jinke said several fighter jets and an early warning aircraft had been deployed to the area as part of a routine patrol. He described the mission as “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices”, according to a statement on the Chinese defence ministry website.

The move came as Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft into the same zone, in defiance of China’s demand that it be informed of all flights through the area. The zone includes airspace over the contested Senkaku Islands. The US earlier this week responded to China’s declaration on Saturday of an “air defence identification zone” by sending B-52 bombers into the airspace, though as part of a pre-planned exercise.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Thursday said Japanese military aircraft were “carrying out surveillance activity as before in the East China Sea”, including inside China’s new air defence identification zone. “We are not going to change this out of consideration to China,” said Mr Suga, without saying how often Japanese military aircraft had entered the zone.

The South Korean defence ministry yesterday said it had conducted a routine surveillance mission on Tuesday over a submerged rock where Seoul has a scientific research centre, but to which China also lays claim.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo have mounted over the past year as Chinese ships and aircraft try to weaken Japan’s control over the group of five uninhabited islands and three rocks that are known in China as the Diaoyu. Japan angered China last year by buying three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.

China has said the creation of the air zone was a “legitimate action” and not targeted at any one country. But the move has sparked criticism across the region and drawn a sharp rebuke from the US.

At a meeting in Seoul Thursday Chinese military officials rejected calls from South Korea to reconsider the zone, according to Seoul’s defence ministry.

“Japan and the US should carefully reflect upon and immediately correct their mistakes,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said. “They should stop their irresponsible accusations against China and refrain from remarks and actions that harm regional stability.”

Joe Biden, US vice-president, will tell Chinese leaders on a trip to Beijing next week that the establishment of an air defence zone is “unsettling” to its neighbours.

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