US tells commercial airlines to take precautions over East China Sea

A group of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen from the city government of Tokyo's survey vessel in the East China Sea in this September 2, 2012 file photo. Chris Meyers / Chris Meyers / Reuters file

WASHINGTON —The United States said on Wednesday it had advised U.S. airlines to take necessary steps to operate safely over the East China Sea as tensions between ally Japan and China increase over new airspace defense zone rules imposed by Beijing.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was trying to determine whether the new rules, which require airplanes flying near contested islands to identify themselves to Chinese authorities, apply to commercial airlines in addition to military aircraft. 

"We're attempting to determine whether the new rules apply to civil aviation and commercial air flight," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing.

"In the meantime U.S. air carriers are being advised to take all steps they consider necessary to operate safely in the East China Sea," she said, adding: "obviously the safety of airplanes is key ... and we're looking into what this means."

Asked whether U.S. carriers would advise Chinese officials of their flight plans, Psaki said: "I wouldn't go that far, we're still looking at it." 

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is set to meet Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin in Washington on Wednesday. Psaki said the meeting was planned long in advance.

The United States defied China's new rules on Tuesday by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers through the contested airspace. Pentagon officials said the bombers were on a routine training mission. China followed up by sending its one aircraft carrier to the region.

The new rules mean aircraft have to report flight plans to China, maintain radio contact and reply promptly to identification inquiries and display clear markings of their nationality and registration.

Psaki said on Tuesday that the United States, which has long encouraged ally Japan and China to resolve the territorial dispute through diplomacy, did not apply its air defense identification zone procedures to foreign aircraft and neither should others.

"The United States does not apply that procedure to foreign aircraft so it is certainly one we don't think others should apply," Psaki said. 

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will raise the issue during a visit to Beijing next week, senior U.S. officials said. Biden is set to visit China, Japan and South Korea during a week-long trip.


China deploys only aircraft carrier after US sends B-52s over disputed islands