U.S. opts to manage, not end, China air zone rift

Priority turns to preventing escalation as Beijing steps up claims



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.

  • Testerty

    “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.

    Every civilian aircrafts, except Japanese ones, are now reporting to China whenever they enter the Chinese ADIZ. I must say the Chinese has learned their lesson : it works. LOL.

    • Michael Williams

      Testerty the Internet Troll.

      All you you do is make pointless, mind numbing, and idiotic posts; most of which are pro-Chinese government and anti-peace. You purposefully refuse to accept the reason as to why China is creating an ADIZ.

      This is not about China desiring to identify possible aerial threats that are nearing their territory, which is what all other ADIZs in the world are designed to do. They placed it in the East China Sea simply to gain leverage in a territorial row and they will use it as an excuse for a conflict when they deem it time to forcefully change the established status quo that has lead to several decades of peace in the region. They are also contemplating creating on in the South China Sea as well; because they are looking to create more leverage over their disputed rows with Vietnam and the Philippines.

      What is sad is you are not thinking about all the innocent people that will be in harms way if things take a disastrous turn for the worst. Pathetic internet troll.

    • Viva75

      Are you serious? This extremely ill conceived move has only isolated them further, especially with other Asian neighbors, exposing China’s true territorial ambitions and they have again lost face. They cannot and have not enforced any of their hollow threats in this newly declared zone, yet they can’t back down for further lose of face, pretty stupid. The only thing that matters are military flights, not civilian, and the US and Japanese military fly through the area without any change at all, and with total impunity. The Chinese cannot adequately track them, cannot respond to them and all of China’s imbecilic, unenforceable demands are being completely ignored.

      The biggest threat to long term prosperity and peace for China and the region is not the US, it’s not Japan, it’s the CCP, and everybody is now waiting to see what their next irresponsible and desperate stunt will be. The zone is seen as a transparently obvious move to forcibly change the status quo. Could an unpredictable, corrupt, top-heavy, communist state shoot down an unarmed, civilian flight packed with innocent people, to divert attention from it’s own failings? Absolutely. The Soviet Union did exactly that in a very similar situation with a Korean Air Lines flight. Civilian carriers should be cautious, it’s the sensible thing to do with a country that clearly operates outside of international norms.

  • Johan Lackbeard

    Not sure how the US could just “end” the dispute even if they wanted to do so.

  • M Lam

    I don’t think that China will ever allow Japan to really take ownership the Senkaku island. And that’s true despite whatever our U.S. government or Japan would do. I know that our U.S. government made a terrible mistake when it passed the administration of those island to Japan. This is already a big problem; the territory has three caimants: Japan, China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Japan now administering it has confused administration with ownership. What a big mess!

  • RationalFearOfTerror

    “U.S. opts to manage, not end, China air zone rift” = China has won, not only this battle but has successfully ‘managed’ the US to accept without ‘real’ opposition the next battle, the next…. Why does the US have the weakest military in the world although on paper it is the most powerful? Because it has the weakest US President that ever has been and hopefully will be.