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U.S. sends two bombers into disputed air zone

by THOM SHANKER New York Times News Service on November 27, 2013 10:46 AM

WASHINGTON — Defying China’s attempt to extend its jurisdiction over more of the East China Sea, two long-range U.S. bombers flew through disputed airspace over the sea just days after the Chinese asserted they have the right to police it.

Pentagon officials said Tuesday that the B-52s were on a routine training mission that had been planned long in advance of the Chinese announcement on Saturday that it was establishing an “air defense identification zone” over contested islands and seas that have been the source of increasing tension with Japan. But the message was clear.

A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday that the training mission “was a demonstration of long-established international rights to freedom of navigation and transit through international airspace.” The official said the unilateral Chinese declaration of expanded control “was provocative, and a barrier to dialogue that only increases the risk of miscalculation in the region.”

There was no immediate Chinese military response to the flights, which were conducted without prior notification as demanded by the new declaration from Beijing, which asserted the right to identify, monitor and possibly take military action against any aircraft that enter the area.

The Associated Press reported that a Chinese Defense Ministry statement said today that the U.S. planes were detected and monitored as they flew through the area for two hours and 22 minutes. It said all aircraft flying through the zone would be monitored and that “China has the capability to exercise effective control over the relevant airspace.” Asked repeatedly about the incident at a regularly scheduled briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said it had been handled according to procedures laid out in the Saturday statement but offered no specifics.

The unexpected announcement by China was among its boldest moves yet in a struggle for power in Asia with the United States, and by extension its regional allies including Japan. The United States, long the dominant power in the region, has been scrambling to shore up its influence in the region, promising in what it called a “pivot” to Asia in 2011 to refocus its energies there after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan diverted its time and resources.

Having Japan in the mix only adds volatility. The country has its own tangled history with China, which has sped past Japan as an economic power and which retains bitter memories of imperial Japan’s military invasion last century. Under its conservative leader, Shinzo Abe, Japan has refused to back down in the dispute with China over the islands.

For the White House, the flare-up could prove a major distraction for Vice President Joe Biden, as he embarks on a weeklong tour of China, Japan and South Korea. Administration officials are eager to focus on issues like a trans-Pacific trade deal and North Korea.

The islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, are administered by the Japanese. U.S. officials have been increasingly worried about the standoff they say should be resolved diplomatically. By treaty the United States is obligated to defend Japan if attacked.

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