China's air zone backed by int'l community, top official tells Japan

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi has told a former Japanese foreign minister that the country's recent establishment of an air defense zone over the East China Sea is "supported by the majority of the international community," a source familiar with the matter said Saturday.

During a meeting with Koichiro Gemba in Beijing on Friday, Yang also rejected Japan's demand that China rescind the so-called air defense identification zone as "beyond international common sense," the source revealed on condition of anonymity.

Yang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to comment on the zone since it was established a week ago over a wide sea area that includes the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, with rules requiring all foreign aircraft to identify themselves and provide flight plans, or risk being subjected to unspecified "emergency defensive measures."

Yang is in charge of China's foreign policy as a member of the executive organ of the central government.

Japan and several other countries, including South Korea and the United States, have voiced strong opposition to the zone's establishment, viewing it as a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea.

The European Union's top representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, also released a statement on Thursday, saying Europe is "concerned to learn of China's decision to establish" the zone, which partially overlaps with those of Japan and South Korea.

"This development heightens the risk of escalation and contributes to raising tensions in the region," she said.

During the meeting with Gemba, Yang reiterated China's position that the islands, which it calls Diaoyu, are part of its territory and that the zone is aimed at safeguarding state sovereignty and was set up in line with international common practices based on the "legitimate right of an independent country," according to the source.

Gemba told him that Japan cannot accept China's claim to the uninhabited islands and the air defense zone, according to the source.

Japan, South Korea and the United States have defied China's imposition of the new rules and continued to send their military aircraft into the zone without informing Beijing.

At China's request, the meeting attended also by former Japanese government officials, was held completely behind closed doors.

Bilateral relations remain frosty since the Japanese government put almost all of the Senkaku Islands under state control by purchasing them from a Japanese private citizen in September last year.

Two weeks after the purchase, Gemba and Yang, who were both foreign ministers at that time, held talks on the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York. Since then, there have been no official face-to-face meetings between the two countries' foreign ministers.

Despite soured bilateral ties, Japan and China have been exploring the possibility of promoting more communication between their defense officials and building a new bilateral mechanism aimed at preventing an unexpected maritime incident in the East China Sea.

In a meeting with Gemba and Japanese former and current officials on Wednesday, former Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan proposed setting up a similar mechanism for air, a person familiar with the matter said earlier.

Yang also expressed support for creating a bilateral risk management mechanism during his meeting with Gemba, the source said.