Why The U.S. Just Flew Two Bombers Over Territory China Claims To Own

An armed B-52 bomber CREDIT: AP
An armed B-52 bomber CREDIT: AP

The United States on Monday evening flew a pair of B-52 bombers over a piece of territory that China has recently claimed as its exclusive area to protect, wading more heavily into a long-lasting dispute between the People’s Republic and Japan.

The two planes were part of a long-planned military exercise called Coral Lightning, according to the Wall Street Journal, and were both unarmed. But the pilots refused to file a flight plan, radio frequency, or transponder with Beijing before making the flight from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.

All of this matters because of the “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) that China announced on Saturday. An ADIZ differs from the idea of a “no-fly zone” in that other countries’ planes are allowed to fly through the territory, so long as they clearly identify themselves. Should they not, however, the country who set up the ADIZ may respond with military force.

“If an aircraft doesn’t supply its flight plan, China’s armed forces will adopt emergency defensive measures in response,” the state-run Xinhua reported. “The announcement states that China’s Ministry of National Defense has full administrative rights over the zone.”


It just so happens that the new zone created on Saturday covers territory involved in a lengthy dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea. The small island chain — known as the the Senkakus to Japan and the Daioyus in China — are sparse and mostly uninhabited, but ownership of them would confer an extended maritime area for either country, as well as the rights to any minerals lurking beneath the ocean floor.

As seen in this map, the new zone that China announced — drawn in yellow — overlaps significantly with the ADIZ that Tokyo had previously declared, stoking the tension between the two Pacific countries:

CREDIT: M. Taylor Fravel

Beijing’s actions, some experts believe, shows the marks of a broader shift in Chinese foreign policy. “Unlike his predecessors, Xi is making foreign policy with the mindset of a great power, increasingly probing U.S. commitments to its allies in the region and exploiting opportunities to change the status quo,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Director of Asia-Pacific Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in a recent op-ed. “China’s recent rhetoric and actions show a move from a defensive, reactive, and image-conscious policy to a proactive approach designed to further China’s vital interests.”

The United States quickly pushed back on China’s claim, calling it “destabilizing” and noting their deep concern. “This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement released on Saturday, which proved to be correct on Monday. “The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S. Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands,” Hagel continued, in a more direct warning to Beijing.


Vice President Joe Biden is due to make a tour of East Asia next week, including stops in Japan, South Korea, and China, something the White House says China’s latest move will not deter or alter. The United States has been working for years to try to diffuse the tension between the two sides over the islands, urging both its ally and its possible competition in the region to remain calm.

“Freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace are essential to prosperity, stability, and security in the Pacific,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday. “We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”

Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida on Sunday meanwhile warned that China’s declaration was “a one-sided action which leads us to assume the danger of unpredictable events on the spot,” a statement that China later disputed. The Global Times — a Chinese newspaper run as an English-language subsidiary of the state-run People’s Daily — ran an op-ed calling the Japanese response “hypocritical” given that Japan already maintains ADIZ in all directions surrounding the island. Despite Tokyo maintaining that they will not recognize the terms of Beijing’s new ADIZ, Japanese airlines have already announced that they will abide by the rules China laid out.


Japan’s two largest airlines have said that they will stop filing flight plans with China through the new ADIZ after all, possibly attempting to call a bluff form Beijing.