China appears to have stepped back from threatening military action to enforce a newly-declared air defense zone over Pacific islets also claimed by Japan.
Just days after warning that overflights would trigger "emergency military measures." Beijing on Wednesday raised no objection to overflights by two U.S. B-52 bombers and a Japanese commercial airliner.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Wednesday told reporters Beijing has "enough determination and capabilities" to defend its claim to the disputed territory. But he said Beijing's response to future overflights will depend "on the different circumstances and the threat levels that we face."
The unarmed B-52s flew through the zone Monday, two days after the Chinese Defense Ministry warned that all aircraft must identify themselves and obey all orders from Beijing.
The edict triggered a strong protest by Tokyo and challenges from the United States, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said there are no U.S. plans to change operational procedures in the region.
In Washington Wednesday, Hagel reaffirmed that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty applies to the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The outcroppings were annexed by Japan in the late 19th century, and claimed by China in 1971. Beijing linked its claim to ancient maps it says show the territory has been Chinese for centuries.
A Pentagon spokesman says Hagel spoke Wednesday with his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, and that the U.S. defense chief "commended the Japanese government for exercising appropriate restraint in the wake of [China's] announcement."
Senior Obama administration officials say U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will discuss the issue with officials in China next week as part of his upcoming three-nation tour of the region, which will include a stop in Japan.
The festering dispute is one of several maritime controversies pitting China against Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
Beijing has indicated a willingness to negotiate the disputes, but has so far rejected calls for multilateral talks. It has sought separate talks with each country.