WASHINGTON — After an internal debate, the Obama administration hasdecided to tell American commercial airlines to comply with China's demands tobe notified of any flights through a broad swath of international airspace thatit has claimed as an air defense zone, officials said Friday.
Even as the United States continued to send military planes into thezone in defiance of China's declaration, officials said they expected civilianplanes to go along with Beijing's new demands out of an abundance of caution.Officials said they were worried about an accident or unintended confrontationthat could endanger civilian passengers.
The administration’s decision came hours after China said it hadscrambled fighter jets for the first time since declaring the zone last week, amove that was seen by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States asprovocative.
The caution reflected in the administration’s decision contrasted withthat by Japan's government, which told its civilian airlines not to abide bythe Chinese rules after they initially began to voluntarily comply.
China’s assertion of jurisdiction over the airspace, designed to bolsterits claim to islands administered by Japan, is not recognized by any of themajor powers in the region but the American decision may irritate Tokyo.
Earlier Friday, in announcing it had scrambled jets, China said it hadidentified two American surveillance planes and 10 Japanese aircraft in itsnewly declared air defense zone
Although there was no indication that China’s air force showed anyhostile intent, the move, reported by official news agencies, ratcheted uptensions in a long-simmering dispute between Japan and China that could lead toa military miscalculation some fear could spiral out of control.
The United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan if it isattacked, directly entered the fray this week by sending unarmed B-52s into thecontested airspace, defying Chinese demands that all aircraft notify theChinese that they were coming in advance or face possible military action.
The dispute between China and Japan centers on uninhabited islands inthe East China Sea. The new air defense zone includes airspace above theislands. Analysts believe that China’s intent in declaring control was not toforce a conflict, but to try to build a case that it has as much claim to theislands as Japan, which has long administered them.
But China may have miscalculated in making the move, experts say,perhaps not expecting such a strong pushback from the United States and Japan.
In Washington, administration officials confirmed that American militaryplanes had continued what they called routine training and surveillance flightsin the disputed airspace. The officials, who spoke on the condition ofanonymity, declined to provide specifics of the American flights on Friday,suggesting that they were classified reconnaissance missions.
The Chinese account in Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said the 10Japanese aircraft included the F-15 jet fighter and surveillance aircraft,though it did not say how many planes of each type were used.
An American surveillance plane was involved in a major diplomaticincident between China and the United States in 2001 when it collided with aChinese jet fighter over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, andthe American plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in southernChina, an accident that badly damaged relations.
Although American officials acknowledged the risks of such accidents,they also said the Chinese air force in recent years has routinely sent itsjets aloft to identify and occasionally shadow American military missions inAsian airspace.
On Friday, asked for clarification on China’s intentions regarding thenew air zone, the spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, said, “The AirDefense Identification Zone does not equal territorial airspace, and is not anexpansion of a country’s territorial airspace.”
The spokesman also said, “Aircraft of all countries, includingcommercial aircraft, carrying out normal flight according to international lawwill not be affected.”
Many countries, including the United States and Japan, have air defensezones, but the coordinates of the Chinese zone overlap with parts of theJapanese zone, setting up what defense experts have called a dangeroussituation in the airspace above the disputed islands.
Mr. Qin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, brushed aside questions aboutJapanese criticism of China’s air defense identification zone, or A.D.I.Z.
“Would the Japanese side tell other countries, does it have anA.D.I.Z.?” Mr. Qin said. “Has it negotiated with other countries while itestablished and enlarged its A.D.I.Z.? How large is its A.D.I.Z.?”
An American expert on such zones said Japanese aircraft would not bedeterred from flying in the airspace above the disputed islands, known as theDiaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
The expert, Peter Dutton, the director of the China Maritime StudiesInstitute at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said that because Japanregards the airspace above the islands as its own, the country would continueair patrols.
“Japan must continue to enforce its sovereignty or they could lose it toChinese pressure,” Mr. Dutton said.