WASHINGTON – The United States has strenuously objected to China’s new air zone over islands controlled by Japan but experts say its best hope is to contain rather than end tensions in the region.
After Beijing last month declared an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, asking foreign planes to identify themselves when entering it, the United States defiantly flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through the ADIZ without warning. Allies Japan and South Korea followed suit.
But in Washington, few expect China — where hostility toward Japan runs deep — to reverse its decision. President Barack Obama’s administration has instead put a priority on preventing escalations.
On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met for more than five hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said later of his talks in Beijing: “I was absolutely clear on behalf of my president: We do not recognize the zone. It will have no effect on American operations. Just ask my general — none, zero.”
But the United States has not explicitly called on China to rescind the ADIZ and instead has asked it to set up an emergency hotline with Japan to prevent a mishap between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
“The possibility of miscalculation — mistake — is real and could have profound consequences for your generation,” Biden told attendees at Yonsei University in Seoul on Friday.
Japan administers the tiny Senkaku Islands, which China claims as Diaoyu. China says Japan stole the uninhabited islet chain in the East China Sea from its jurisdiction.
Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed not to compromise on the sovereignty issue and has stepped up defense spending, believing that China is trying to change the status quo through growing incursions of Japanese waters around the Senkakus.
Several U.S.-based experts suspect that Beijing has goals beyond its row with Tokyo. China, which has been ramping up military spending for more than a decade on the back of rampant economic growth, also is tussling with the Philippines and Vietnam, among other neighboring states, over maritime territories in the South China Sea.
“I don’t see the Chinese rolling it (the ADIZ) back. I don’t think for domestic political reasons that would be an easy thing to do to begin with,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “They clearly have, I think, done it with the intention of pursuing aims that are far beyond the China-Japan island dispute. I think it’s a bigger piece of their strategic puzzle.
“So I think management is where we probably should focus our attention,” she added.
Washington, while insisting it does not take sides on sovereignty rows, has said the Senkakus are under Tokyo’s control and hence fall under a bilateral security treaty that requires the U.S. to defend Japan against armed attack.
With several nations concerned about China’s rise and maritime muscle-flexing, Obama has declared Asia a top priority and shifted naval resources to the region, although the U.S. is also reducing its military spending — which is more than four times China’s official level — to tame debt from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a major domestic recession.
Zheng Wang, a professor at Seton Hall University, said the U.S. reaction to the air zone would discourage Chinese policymakers if they consider similar moves elsewhere, such as in the South China Sea.
“I think there are several indicators suggesting that the response from the outside is beyond Chinese expectations. So if they can learn the lessons, I don’t think they will make similar announcements in the near future,” he said.
He said the Chinese leadership may not have thoroughly studied the ADIZ plan and may at least learn to communicate its decisions better with other nations in future. But he doubted that China would revise its decision, saying that Beijing likely believes it is being held to a double standard since other nations also have air defense identification zones.
Yoshihide Soeya, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, expected that China may be planning further steps and warned of risks from overlapping air zones.
He said a hotline between Japan and China would prove helpful, noting that Japan and South Korea, despite often rocky relations, already have one in place. If all three countries shared a hotline, “this would be beautiful crisis management,” he said.