Japan warns China against imposing 'air defence zone'

South Korea voices regret over unilateral declaration of zone 'overlapping' its own

TOKYO - Japan warned yesterday of the danger of "unpredictable events" and South Korea voiced regret following China's unilateral declaration of an air defence zone over areas claimed by Tokyo and Seoul.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said yesterday that his country was considering making stronger protests "at a higher level" after China announced on Saturday that it was setting up the zone over an area that includes Tokyo-controlled islands claimed by Beijing.

"It was a one-sided action and cannot be allowed," he told reporters yesterday. "It could well lead to an unforeseen situation."

On Saturday, a division at Japan's Foreign Ministry lodged a strong protest with a minister at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo by telephone.

In Seoul, South Korea's Defence Ministry said the Chinese zone partly overlapped its own.

"We find it regretful that China's air defence zone partly overlaps with our military's Kadiz (Korean Air Defence Identification Zone) in the area west of Jeju Island," said a ministry statement. "We will discuss with China the issue so as to prevent its establishment from affecting our national interests."

Ties between the China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies respectively, have been strained for months by a dispute over the islands in the East China Sea that are called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan. Beijing's announcement on Saturday suggests that foreign aircraft merely passing through the zone would have to follow China's procedures - or face unknown, potentially dangerous consequences.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel said Washington was "deeply concerned" about the moves by China, which also scrambled air force jets to carry out a patrol mission in the newly declared zone.

"This unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea," Mr Kerry said. "Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident."

He said the US has urged China to "exercise caution and restraint", and warned Beijing against implementing its new zone.

Mr Hagel reiterated that the Japanese-administered islands fall under the US-Japan security treaty - meaning that Washington would defend its ally Tokyo if the area is attacked.

"We are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan. We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners," he said.

He made clear that the US, which stations more than 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea, would not respect China's declaration of control over the zone.

"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," he said.

China's Xinhua news agency yesterday said in a commentary that the "air zone could contribute to regional peace and security by curbing the increasing rampancy of Japan's right-wing forces".

Further, Chinese military experts reiterated yesterday that the zone conforms with international laws.

"It accords with common international practices as the United States and Canada took the lead around the world in setting up such zones starting in the 1950s," said military and legal expert Xing Hongbo, adding that more than 20 countries have set up air defence identification zones since then.

Since Japan bought three of the islands from a private owner in September last year, patrol boats from both sides have tailed one another through the area and the row has hurt trade and tourism ties. Top-level political contact has ground to a halt.

"It's not surprising for China to establish such a zone to manage air control or aviation beyond its territorial seas," said Professor Ling Bing, who teaches Chinese law at the University of Sydney. "But in this situation, where they have put it out in a very high-profile way and extended it over the islands and raised tensions, it seems there are some motives that go beyond simply air control."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG