Resort to diplomacy, not threats

China on Nov. 23 set up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a section of the East China Sea that includes Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China also claims. This act is a dangerous provocation to Japan and the United States since the ADIZ overlaps Japan’s air zone and violates Japan’s territorial right over the islands. Given this situation, the Japanese government had no choice but to strongly protest to China and demand that Beijing scrap its ADIZ.

First and foremost, China should stop its provocative acts concerning the Senkakus, including intrusions into Japanese territorial waters around the islands. But Japan, for its part, must deal with the situation in a cool-headed manner. Self-restraint on both sides is vital to avoid an accidental military clash.

The possibility cannot be ruled out that a Chinese military aircraft and a Japanese Air-Self Defense Force aircraft could come so close to each as to lead to an unanticipated military incident. In 2012, ASDF jet fighters scrambled 306 times against Chinese aircraft that entered Japan’s air zone. On the day China set up its air zone, two Chinese reconnaissance planes entered Japan’s air zone and one of them came as close as about 40 km to Japan’s airspace over the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo and Beijing should immediately open a channel of defense dialogue and establish a hotline so any critical situations can be quickly defused.

Attention must be paid to the fact that the ADIZ in question is the first that China has set up. Thus far only Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have maintained ADIZs in the region. China says that aircraft flying in its air zone “must” provide relevant information to China irrespective of what direction they plan to fly and that China will take “defensive emergency measures” in response to aircraft that do not follow its rules. The position of Japan’s Foreign Ministry is that China’s air zone rules violate the basic rules of flight freedom in airspace over the high seas.

Although Beijing said that the establishment of the ADIZ is not aimed at any country, it is clearly targeting Japan and its creation will increase regional tensions. Expressing a “deep concern” over China’s move, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that Washington regards it “as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and that it “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” He also made it clear that Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if it is attacked by a third country, applies to the Senkaku Islands. Beijing should not underestimate just how seriously Washington regards the latest development.

Beijing may be trying to draw the attention of the Chinese public away from domestic economic and social problems by taking a hard-line stance on the Senkaku Islands. But it should realize that it will lose the international community’s trust if it continues to pursue the path of using threats to resolve diplomatic issues.

For its part, Japan must refrain from fanning the flames of nationalism at home and not let itself be provoked by China. Japan should launch strong diplomatic efforts together with the U.S. and other countries to convince Beijing to exercise self-restraint.