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.
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.
Senior administration officials providing information on the grounds their names not be used said Biden intends to press Beijing policymakers on the "unsettling" pattern of how they deal with neighbors.
The officials said Biden will make it clear the U.S. has a "rock-solid commitment" to its allies in the region. Biden plans to visit allies Japan and South Korea during the visit from Dec. 1-8.
Two U.S. military aircraft have flown around disputed islands in the East China Sea without informing China, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, defying China's declaration that the region falls into a new airspace defense zone.
"We have conducted operations in the area of the Senkakus. We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies," spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said, using the Japanese name for the islands.
There was no Chinese response, Warren said.
China published coordinates for an "East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone" over the weekend and warned it would take "defensive emergency measures" against aircraft that failed to identify themselves properly in the airspace.
The zone covers most of that sea and includes the skies over islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Japan.
The United States and close ally Japan have sharply criticized the move, with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling it a "destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region." He said on Saturday the United States would not change how it operates in the region.
The White House said that the dispute between China and Japan over the islands should be solved diplomatically.
"The policy announced by the Chinese over the weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in California, where President Barack Obama is traveling.
"These are the kinds of differences that should not be addressed with threats or inflammatory language, but rather can and should be resolved diplomatically," he said.
Experts said the Chinese move was aimed at chipping away at Tokyo's claim to administrative control over the area, including the tiny uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
While Washington does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands, it recognizes that Japan has administrative control over them and is therefore bound by treaty to defend Japan in the event of an armed conflict.
The Pentagon said the flights took place on Monday evening Eastern Standard Time and "involved two aircraft flying from Guam and returning to Guam" on a training mission.
Warren said the U.S. military aircraft were neither observed nor were contacted by the Chinese aircraft.
China's Defense Ministry said on Monday it had lodged protests with the U.S. and Japanese embassies in Beijing over the criticism from Washington and Tokyo of the zone.
Information from Reuters and The Associated Press was used in this story.
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