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Airline passengers are at frontlines in China dispute

TOKYO—Although she is a seasoned traveler who frequently flies between Tokyo and Hong Kong, Kazuyo Ito confessed to some preflight anxiety as she checked in on Thursday for Japan Airlines Flight 29.

“It is a little scary,” said the 59-year-old homemaker when asked about China’s threat to stop aircraft that refuse to identify themselves when flying over a large swath of the East China Sea.

The situation in effect puts airline passengers at the front lines of the dispute over China’s declaration of an air-defense identification zone over islands Japan administers.

“They wouldn’t do something to a commercial airline,” Ito said uncertainly before turning to her 29-year-old daughter, Kaori, who piped in, with more confidence, “I don’t think it will affect regular passengers like us.”

Under the rules announced by Beijing on November 23, all aircraft passing through the zone must file their flight plans in advance and maintain two-way radio communication.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, the leading Japanese carriers, initially promised to comply but reversed themselves two days later on orders from Prime Minster Shinzo Abe.

“It was the government’s decision, not the airlines’,” said Geoffrey Tudor, a senior analyst with Japan Aviation Management Research in Tokyo. “The Japanese, being obedient, followed the government’s line. They couldn’t really say no, [it] coming from the government at such a high level.”

The Japanese decision has drawn widespread criticism, with one Hong Kong-based Chinese newspaper declaring it “tantamount to using passengers as human shields.”

“Politics are politics. Let the diplomats work it out. If there are in-flight games of chicken, let the military pilots handle those,” said Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel analyst. “Airlines are supposed to be nonpolitical and to operate out of an abundance of caution for the safety of their passengers, crew and equipment.”

The biggest fear, he said, is another incident like the 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was mistaken for a spy plane and shot down after it veered into Soviet airspace.

The US government, while refusing to recognize the Chinese zone, has in essence told American carriers they should file their flight plans in advance with China.

The differing responses have caused discomfort in the US-Japan relationship and subjected the Obama administration to accusations of capitulating to China.

“Obama throws Japan under the bus and bows to China” was the headline on an editorial this week in Investor’s Business Daily.

The dispute over the Chinese zone has dominated a visit to the region by Vice President Joe Biden, who met with Abe in Tokyo early this week and with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday. Biden was heading on Thursday to Seoul to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Although Biden stopped short of asking the Chinese to rescind the zone designation, he did ask them to lower tensions by “avoiding enforcement actions that really could lead to a crisis,” a senior administration official said on Wednesday in Beijing.

Under the rules as originally announced, China’s military would be entitled to take “emergency defensive measures” against unidentified aircraft flying through the zone—an implicit threat to shoot them down. In recent days, however, Beijing has backed away from the tougher language and said the zone is meant to serve as a safety measure.

Roughly 30 Japanese carriers operate flights that regularly pass through the zone, mostly on routes between Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as Southeast Asia.

Japanese airlines have not said how the dispute has affected ticket sales.

Koki Nakamori, sales director at a travel agency specializing in travel to Taiwan, said a high-school group planning to fly 125 people next week to the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, had canceled, adding, “We’re getting almost no cancellations with individual travel plans.”

The Chinese air-defense identification zone covers much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Japanese-administered islands known as Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China. It also includes reefs known as Ieodo that are under South Korean control.

The South Korean Defense Ministry said on Monday that its airlines should not give notice when flying through the zone.

The United States has tried to finesse the issue, appearing to defend its key Asian allies—Japan and South Korea—while not putting passengers at risk. Days after the Chinese announced the zone, the Pentagon flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through it in a sign of defiance.

A senior administration official briefing reporters traveling with Biden said the Federal Aviation Administration had not issued formal guidance on the issue, but reiterated “long-standing practice that for the safety and security of passengers, US civilian airlines operate consistent with Notams. The term refers to “notices to airmen”—alerts to tell pilots of hazards along their routes.

“There is fundamentally no daylight between us and Japan,” the official added.

Tokyo-based travel analyst Tudor said he thought the main difference was that the Japanese are less inclined to sue.

“The United States is a more litigious society than Japan, and government agencies are sensitive about the possibility of illegalities,” he said. Times staff writer Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Nagano from Tokyo

 

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