By Andrew Kim
While all remained calm in San Diego this past week, East Asia was marked by escalating tension and increasingly hawkish behavior as China’s declaration of a new airspace defense zone put its neighbors on edge. Moreover, China declared that all incoming aircraft should relay Chinese authorities of their presence, warning that it would take “defensive emergency measures” against any aircraft that failed to properly identify itself.
The new air defense zone not only encompasses the disputed islands in the East China Sea, but also includes waters believed to be territories of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan—all of China’s neighboring countries and all of which have publicly disputed the matter. Being that the United States is the predominant military backer of the three aforementioned East Asian countries, it is faced with heavy pressure to militarily support its allies. On Nov. 26, it did just that by flying two military aircraft around the disputed islands.
“We have conducted operations in the area of the Senkakus. We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies,” spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said, using the Japanese name for the islands.
The situation initially arose over China and Japan’s dispute over a series of tiny uninhabited islands whose surrounding waters are thought to be rich in minerals and resources. Known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diaoyu in China, the islands were bought by the Japanese national government in an effort to quell such disputes. However, recently China sent out water vessels to the area, subsequently exacerbating tensions and rhetoric by the Japanese. While China’s new declaration was made with the intent of chipping away at Tokyo’s claims, the United States had recognized that Japan has administrative control over the islands and is additionally bound by treaty to defend Japan in the event of an armed conflict. This is perhaps the most likely reason it sent aircraft into the new zone, in flagrant violation of China’s declaration. The move was made with the intention of showing a public display of support not only to Japan, but also to all other East Asian allies of the United States.
Meanwhile, China scrambled fighter jets to respond to the U.S. aircraft, marking the first time China sent military aircraft into the zone alongside foreign flights. Many analysts believe that while China wanted to display its rising weight, it most likely did not anticipate the forceful display and response from the United States, which is why the Chinese government did not give any initial response to the matter.
Moreover, such inflammatory rhetoric is creating problems. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Asia-Pacific director at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the creation of its zone had its own momentum. “The danger in the announcement is that it empowers the People’s Liberation Army, maritime agencies and netizens [internet users] to hold the government to account,” she said. “Now people are transgressing the zone, they have to make it look to the domestic audience like they are serious. They have given birth to internal pressures.”
When looking towards the future, both China and Japan’s increasingly hawk-like rhetoric can translate into possibly dangerous escalations that the United States most likely does not want to get entangled in. The meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday that discussed topics such as the rising tension in the area shows that it is essential tfor diplomacy prevail—there is simply too much at stake if both sides were to get dragged into a possible conflict. Both the United States and China will continue to be global superpowers in the future, and so it becomes necessary to find common ground and come together to handle problems. Hopefully, cooler heads can prevail.
Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery