Tensions between three intrinsically linked powers – China, Japan, and the United States - escalated appreciably in the western Pacific following China’s sudden declaration of an “air defence” identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea on November 23.
The announcement changes the geopolitical framework in the western Pacific by positioning China as the lone provocateur, bonding regional nations together against China, alleviating Japan as China’s sole target, and reconfirming the United States as the critical preserver of peace and stability in the region.
At first, China’s new zone included only an economically strategic group of islands administered by the Japanese – known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The declared zone itself might not have been so unusual or dangerous if it excluded these disputed islands, but now Japan feels threatened, and by extension, so does the US.
Beijing’s unilateral move was immediately condemned by both Tokyo and Washington as a destabilising step, making tensions much harder to manage. Neither of these powers has officially recognised the new zone, with US defence officials aggressively reminding Beijing that it does not accept other nation’s requirements on its military aircraft.
And in a show of both strength and defiance, the US dispatched two B-52 strategic bombers to fly through the area last week without complying with any of the rules outlined by China. Japan plans to also maintain its air patrols and told its civilian aircraft to ignore the rules.
The new zone falls on the eastern fringes of China’s claimed exclusive economic zone and overlaps parts of both South Korea’s and Japan’s own extended ADIZ.
What was striking about the official Chinese announcement was that it went on to say that “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.” That seemed to warn of more extensions to come. Then, as if to confirm this, Beijing announced on December 1 it now wishes to extend the zone over the entire disputed island chain. Such a move would constitute a substantial part of the South China Sea, and it sounds like it won’t end there.
An ADIZ is a unilateral means for a country to monitor aircraft approaching its territory and requires aircraft to report their flight plans and identify themselves when travelling through the zone, whereas airspace is the sky above a territory plus 22 kilometres of coastal waterway. These zones are something many nations have used in contested airspace to enhance air security since the early 1960s. In theory, an ADIZ does not constrain aerial passage as long as the aircraft – whether civilian or military – gives advance notice and follows all the rules.
The United States on December 4 called on China to lift its ADIZ procedures due to the risk of accidents. Later, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stressed the difference between the ADIZ and China's territorial airspace, saying the zone will not affect the normal flight of other countries' aircraft.
If China’s motive with the ADIZ was about genuinely wishing to prevent risky accidents in the disputed seas, it could have found a more diplomatically friendly way of talking to Japan and surrounding nations. After all, Beijing has emphasised publically that it wishes to craft effective “confidence building measures” with Washington and Tokyo especially. Instead, China has overplayed its hand in trying to isolate Japan in this particular dispute.
Whatever historical reasoning leftover from World War II compels China’s aggression against Japan, they are now more likely to be viewed as an unreasonable and dangerous provocateur in the eyes of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Also helping to tilt the region away from China and towards a regional pseudo-alliance against Beijing’s advances is the blurry territorial lines claimed by China all over the place. No one quite knows where China will lay claims next.
The notorious “nine-dash line” is a perfect example of the vagueness of China’s claims to sovereignty. It roughly loops nine unconnected dots across the South China Sea, straight through multiple nations’ own internationally recognised economic zones. Other territory disputes with India, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines follow a similar pattern.
However, the newly announced ADIZ is different because it is exact and precise. And it portends more demarcation steps elsewhere which must be worrying nations like India, Myanmar, and the Philippines. It also changes the status quo regarding the string of islands by directly challenging Japan’s de facto control.
China wants to find both a balance which benefits their interests in the region while testing the resolve of the United States’ security agreement with their allies. Beijing, just like the rest of Asia, has noticed that US President Barack Obama’s policy of a “pivot” both embraces and encounters China’s rise. Mr Obama’s strategy has had its fair share of obstacles and feels like it’s rolling on too slowly for major US partners in the region. Over time, a gradual transfer of defence responsibilities has been falling on Japan and South Korea and away from the US military.
So Tokyo, sensing it might not be able to rely completely on US protection, has built an impressive naval force to protect its interests in the crowded space while the United States drags its diplomatic feet in the Middle East. What makes this latest move from China so interesting is the opportunity it offers for Japan, South Korea, and the US to mend some fraying defence ties.
Asian nations had their reasons for being equally wary of Japan’s rise as they are of China’s, now the tables have turned somewhat. The question is: will they reach out to the United States as mediator and security guarantor and keep a wary eye on both Japan and China?
Or is the perceived US reluctance over the past year forcing them to align together against China? Either way, the US has its work cut out for them. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s hard-line statements condemning the move indicates Washington intends to step in front of Tokyo to deal with the fallout of China’s new zone itself, rather than let the situation deteriorate by allowing Japan to take the lead.
Other US actions following the ADIZ announcement reaffirmed America’s defence commitment to Japan and South Korea. Sending B-52 aircraft over the zone put only American pilots in danger instead of Japanese, and reminded all players that the US is the effective third party to the dispute.
Overall, the ADIZ debacle could have been handled better if Beijing had just talked to its neighbours rather than announcing its controversial plans unilaterally. Dealing with the reality of the zone will probably not lead to outright conflict – as there’s simply too much to lose for all sides - but the potential for mistakes compound with each escalation and anything is possible.
And in a bizarre way, the situation has breathed new life into Mr Obama’s pivot strategy. He can now take this opportunity to display to his allies in the region how crucial the United States Navy really is for preserving peace and security in the troubled waters. It also offers Washington another chance to show Beijing how vast the huge gulf of military capability really is separating the US from China.
Ratcheting up the tensions is causing all players to readjust their behaviour. China’s increasingly hostile actions will push other claimants around the western Pacific to seek the support of the United States, which will place the role of the US military in an influential pole position in the coming months.