Two American B52 bombers flew across disputed islands in the East China Sea on Tuesday, days after China heightened tensions with Japan by claiming the area as its “air defence identification zone”.
In what appeared to be a challenge to the Chinese claim, the Pentagon said the flights were a long-planned training mission and insisted the US would continue to operate in what it considers international air space.
The Chinese were not informed of the flights.
The Chinese defence ministry said on Saturday that it would establish the air zone over the group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea in order to protect its territorial rights.
Beijing also insisted that it would take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that entered the zone without identifying themselves.
The Chinese claim is part of a broader push by Beijing to assert greater control over the seas that surround it and to push back against US influence in the western Pacific, where the US navy has been dominant since the end of the second world war.
China has also taken a more aggressive stance in defence of its claims over a series of disputed islands in the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, among others.
The announcement of the new air zone has aggravated the already tense dispute with Japan over the islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
The US, which has a longstanding defence treaty with Japan, has sharply criticised the Chinese decision. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said yesterday that Beijing’s announcement was “unnecessarily inflammatory” and that it could have a “destabilising impact on the region”.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, issued a strongly-worded statement within hours of the Chinese announcement at the weekend, accusing China of launching “a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region”.
He said China’s “unilateral” announcement would increase “the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations” and insisted that the Pentagon would not “in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region”.
Although the US officially does not have a position on the sovereignty dispute over the islands, Mr Hagel added that the mutual defence treaty with Japan did include the Senkaku Islands – an indication that the US would intervene on the Japanese side if there were ever a conflict over the islands.
Japan has also sharply criticised the Chinese announcement. Speaking on Monday, Shinzo Abe, prime minister, said that the Chinese attempt to restrict air traffic in the region was “unenforceable” and that it was “of no validity whatsoever to Japan”.