Washington: US vice president Joe Biden will press Chinese leaders on their intentions with a new air defence zone, as defence secretary Chuck Hagel assured Japan of US support and continued military operations in the region.

Biden will use meetings with leaders in Beijing next week partly to express US concern about China’s behaviour toward its neighbours and seek an explanation of the air zone it claimed over disputed areas of the East China Sea, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on Wednesday on condition of anonymity to discuss the vice president’s plans.

“China’s establishment of the zone that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China is a potentially destabilizing unilateral action designed to change the status quo in the region, and raises the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation," Hagel said in a call on Wednesday to Japanese defence minister Itsunori Onodera, according to an e-mailed statement by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog.

The US sent two unarmed B-52 bombers through the disputed zone this week without the advance notice that China has demanded and without incident. South Korea’s military sent a plane through the area on 26 November on a regular patrol flight, according to NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization, which cited military sources it didn’t name.

US deployment

“This is one of the most serious challenges ever posed by China to freedom of movement both on the sea and in the sky and will affect very seriously the forward deployment of the US," said Tomohiko Taniguchi, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Commercial airlines are also being drawn into the dispute. ANA Holdings Inc. ran 27 flights through the area on Wednesday without incident. Japan Airlines Co. and Peach Aviation Ltd, a low-fare affiliate of ANA, are also flying through the zone without coordinating with China.

The perils of in-air confrontations are illustrated by a 2001 incident when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy plane monitoring Chinese communications over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, while the US plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. China held its crew of 24 for 11 days before freeing them after the US expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot.

KAL 007

In 1983, a Korean Air Lines Co. jumbo jet was shot down by the Soviet Union after the plane strayed into the country’s airspace. All 269 people aboard the jet were killed.

Biden’s trip to China, Japan and South Korea on a visit to promote trade and other joint interests risks being overshadowed by the dispute over the air zone, which China announced on 23 November. The official who briefed reporters declined to say whether Biden would call on China to eliminate the zone, saying any remedial actions would be discussed through private diplomatic channels.

The Chinese move has also focussed attention on military movements in the area. The HMS Daring, a British aircraft carrier, will make a stop in Tokyo on 2 December on its return from the Philippines where it provided typhoon relief.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, passed through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, as it heads for exercises in the South China Sea, scene of a territorial spat with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area.

Philippine spat

If China were to attempt a similar defence zone in that area, that would be a significant problem for all of the claimant states in the South China Sea because there’s this threat that China will control the air space, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said in an interview on Thursday with ABS-CBN news channel.

The air defence zone marks the latest escalation between the world’s second and third-largest economies over islands—known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese—located in the zone. More than a year since Japan infuriated China by buying some of the islands from a private owner, planes and ships from the two countries have frequently tailed each other in the area.

The risk of shots being fired in a Japan-China dispute over the islands is a no-kidding threat to growth and confidence in the region, Robert McNally, former senior director for international energy on National Security Council, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Japan’s military

Potential scenarios include China firing warning shots at overflying aircraft or sending scientists to land on the islands to provoke Japanese reaction, said McNally, now president of Rapidan Group, an energy research firm in Bethesda, Maryland.

China’s creation of the zone may spur Abe to take a tougher stance as his government studies changing how it interprets the pacifist constitution imposed by the US after World War II to deploy armed forces more freely. Abe is undertaking a review for a 10-year defence plan to be announced next month that may see Japan’s government add ballistic missile defense ships and refueling planes.

The US bombers spent less than an hour in the China-claimed zone as part of an annual training exercise, said a US defence official who asked not to be named discussing the deployment. The Chinese defence ministry said in a statement that its military kept the flights under surveillance and they travelled along the eastern edge of the zone.

Predicting that the US will continue to send flights through the area, Francois Godement, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “What they are doing is dropping their business card."

‘All steps’

While the Pentagon isn’t informing the Chinese when it sends planes through the air zone, Jen Psaki, a US State Department spokeswoman, told reporters on Wednesday that the US airlines are being advised to take all steps they consider necessary to operate safely in the East China Sea region.

The US and Japan last month set out a road map for their alliance over the next 20 years, agreeing to revise the guidelines for defence cooperation for the first time since 1997. The US is compelled to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a conflict.

In Wednesday’s call, Hagel commended Japan for exercising appropriate restraint in response to China’s actions, according to the statement. He reaffirmed the US policy that the US-Japan mutual defence treaty applies to the disputed islands and pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents. Bloomberg