Policy & Strategy

US, China square off over air restrictions

American forces in the Pacific will not heed China’s new restrictions on when and where U.S. warplanes can fly, the Pentagon said Monday.

Squadrons based near the restricted airspace “will continue conducting flight operations in the region … and will not, in any way, change” how those missions are carried out, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday.

{mosads}It remains unclear how U.S. forces would react if confronted by Chinese military units in the contested airspace, Warren told reporters at the Pentagon.

That said, “we always [maintain] the right to defend ourselves,” Warren said.

Over the weekend, Chinese leaders instituted a series of new rules for U.S. allied military aircraft operating in the skies above the Diaoyutai and Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. 

The rules, which are part of Beijing’s so-called “Air Defense Identification Zone,” require U.S. forces to identify themselves and their mission to Chinese forces.

Prior to creation of the restricted zone, American and allied fighters did not have to comply with such rules, because the area over the East China Sea was considered international airspace. 

China’s decision drew strong rebuke from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said the new no-fly zone was another example of aggressive Chinese expansion that “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations” between Washington and China. 

“The United States is conveying these concerns to China through diplomatic and military channels, and we are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan,” Hagel said in a statement Saturday.  

On Monday, Warren declined to comment as to whether American warplanes would begin flying missions over the contested area fully armed to respond to possible Chinese aggression.

A majority of American operations flown in the area consist of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations and large-scale training missions with U.S allies. 

Last August, the Pentagon began flying unmanned surveillance missions over the small Pacific island chains, as part of a defense security agreement with Japan. 

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto agreed to the drone operations after a bilateral meeting in Washington. 

The surveillance missions over the islands — located off the coastlines of Japan, China and Taiwan — will likely be flown by Air Force Global Hawk drones deployed in the region. 

Three Global Hawks are already on station at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. 

Aside from the Diaoyutai Islands, examples of Beijing’s military aggressiveness have come mostly in the South China Sea, centered on the Spratly Islands. 

Top Chinese officials last July ordered troops to be stationed at bases located on the Spratlys, resulting in swift condemnation from Washington. 

At the time, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the deployment “unnecessarily provocative,” adding that the move only served to ratchet up regional tensions between China and its neighbors in the Pacific.  

Tags China Chuck Hagel Chuck Hagel John McCain Pentagon

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