China has found itself facing a delicate balancing act as it grapples with regional anxieties on the one hand, and on the other, domestic pressure to not appear weak.

China said on Friday it had scrambled fighter jets to identify and tail 12 American and Japanese aircraft that had, in recent days, entered its newly established Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), underlining rising regional tensions over the contested area.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force scrambled two fighter planes to investigate flights by two U.S. surveillance aircraft and a separate deployment by 10 Japanese aircraft that included one F-15 fighter, air force spokesman Shen Jinke was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Colonel Shen said on Thursday China had also deployed some of its most advanced fighter jets and an early warning aircraft to patrol through the ADIZ over the disputed East China Sea, even as Japan and South Korea had, earlier this week, carried out their own air patrols in defiance of China’s plan to enforce its control over the area.

He described the deployment as “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices”.

China, on November 23, announced the setting up of the ADIZ, saying it would track aircraft through the zone and, if needed, take “emergency” defensive measures if aircraft did not notify authorities of their flight plans in advance.

Many countries have established similar zones, which are predefined areas in international airspace - beyond a country's territorial airspace which extends up to 12 nautical miles from its coastline – in which countries track aircraft for security reasons.

Attention

China's ADIZ has stirred attention as it overlaps with the zones set up by Japan and South Korea, and also extends over disputed islands in the East China Sea claimed by Beijing and Tokyo.

China has also required aircraft to notify authorities if their flight plans pass through any portion of the ADIZ, although many other countries, such as the U.S., only required aircraft to do so if they are headed towards their territorial airspace. There are, however, no international laws or rules governing the setting up of an ADIZ.

In recent days, the U.S., South Korea and Japan have carried out air patrols through the zone without notifying China, making it clear that they will not comply with Beijing’s measures. The three countries have expressed concern that the move may raise the likelihood of confrontations.

China has found itself facing a delicate balancing act as it grapples with regional anxieties on the one hand, and on the other, domestic pressure to not appear weak.

On Thursday, the nationalistic tabloid, Global Times, in an editorial said China “failed in offering a timely and ideal response” and risked “undermin[ing] the image of our military forces”, after officials said they had responded to the U.S. and South Korean patrols by only “identifying” aircraft and not taking other defensive measures.

“Chinese authorities must make speedy reactions to various emergencies and challenges,” the editorial said.

The Chinese government on Friday sought to rebut criticism that the move was stoking tensions, saying that China wanted “to seek effective management of differences” with Japan “through dialogue and consultation”.

“At present, the difficulty is that Japan has been shying away from China’s request, so Japan should not only say words but should also make tangible efforts,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters.

Defending China’s right to set up an ADIZ, he pointed out that Japan had set up a zone as long as 40 years ago, in 1969. “When Japan set up an ADIZ and expanded it several times afterwards, did Japan have consultations with other countries? How large is Japan’s ADIZ?”, he told reporters, indicating that China’s zone was smaller.

“Japan is merely allowing itself to set fire,” Mr. Qin said, “but forbidding others to even light a lamp.”

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