The United States has stopped short of mirroring Japan’s response to China’s newly announced and highly controversial air defense zone in that the U.S. isn’t following Tokyo in instructing its airlines not to comply with Beijing’s demands for foreign airlines to file flight plans when navigating through the zone. Japanese officials on Sunday have publicly played down this seeming incongruence, but have asked some pointed questions at the U.S. government on why this is happening.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has advised U.S. commercial airlines to abide by China’s air-defense zone rules to avoid any possible miscommunications, this announced by Obama administration officials. The State Department on Friday said it “generally expects” carriers to operate consistent with notices such as the one China put out about the establishment of the air-defense identification zone. It would seem that China’s new air zone has put the Obama administration in a bit of a bind – while the U.S. military has sent aircraft to flout Beijing’s rules, the administration also took steps designed to ensure the safety of commercial American flights in the region. As U.S. officials swiftly challenged the Chinese militarily on behalf of its alliance with Japan, Washington has felt it necessary to protect its civil aviation of any untoward risk, stopping short of mirroring Tokyo’s aggressive response of requesting its civil-aviation planes to disregard Beijing’s new rules.
“I was taken aback when I heard this,” Yukio Okamoto, a former senior Foreign Ministry official, said in an interview on Sunday. “I can’t think of any case like this in the past where the U.S. took a step that hurt Japan’s interests over an issue related directly to Japan’s national security in a way visible to the whole world.” On Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said, “We have confirmed through diplomatic channels that the U.S. government didn’t request commercial carriers to submit flight plans.” White House officials have declined to discuss the issue further on Sunday, referring inquires to the FAA and citing the State Department’s earlier guidance. The State Department didn’t respond to requests to comment, and an FAA spokeswoman didn’t have any immediate comment.