The rising tension this week in the East China Sea could force the Obama administration to revive its plan for a “pivot to Asia,” a revamped engagement with China and its neighbors that’s been overshadowed by Middle East conflicts and other crises. President Barack Obama bowed out of two summits in southeast Asia last month because of the U.S. government shutdown.
Vice President Joe Biden leaves Sunday for a weeklong trip to Asia and is expected to relay Obama’s concerns with Beijing’s claim last weekend of an “air defense identification zone” in contested waters between China and Japan. U.S. officials are worried that such a provocation invites low-level, tit-for-tat escalations that could build into a real conflict in which the Obama administration would have to intervene on behalf of allied Japan.
China scrambled fighter jets Friday morning after U.S. and Japanese military aircraft entered its newly declared air defense zone over the East China Sea, a Chinese military official said Friday.
Col. Shen Jinke, a Chinese air force spokesman, said in Beijing that the two U.S. and 10 Japanese aircraft were monitoring targets in the zone. He said the Chinese air force and navy were identifying and monitoring all foreign warplanes in the zone.
The incident marks a ratcheting up of tensions in the region that began last weekend, when Beijing declared the air defense identification zone over islands claimed by Japan and China.
Since then, several countries -- including the United States, South Korea and Japan -- have ignored the restrictions called for by Beijing.
Secretary of State John Kerry called the establishment of the identification zone “an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” and said that “escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risk of an incident.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stressed the same concerns, warning that the move “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a swift and angry denouncement of the zone. And the government of Korea summoned Chinese diplomats to complain and to reiterate that Seoul wouldn’t recognize the ADIZ and would maintain jurisdiction over waters around the disputed Ieodo/Suyan Rock, according to news reports.
“Beijing’s action further increases tension in the territorial dispute between China and Japan at a time when that bilateral relationship is already severely strained and heightens the risk of an accident,” according to a report issued this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is a very large overlap between China’s ADIZ and Japan’s ADIZ. When aircraft from either country fly in this overlapping area, the other side is likely to scramble fighters and intercept the intruder. If intercepts are not conducted safely and in accordance with international norms, a collision is possible.”
The CSIS report recalled that in 2001 a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance plane, resulting in the Chinese pilot’s death and the forced landing of the U.S. EP-3 on Hainan Island. The incident caused “a crisis in U.S.-China relations.”
Global intelligence firm Stratfor published a report on its website Friday that quoted a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying China has the right to patrol the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, and that the zone wouldn’t affect the normal flight of other countries’ aircraft.
“Unlike similar disputes in the South China Sea, the direct involvement of the U.S. through obligations under their security treaty with Japan raises the stakes,” stated a report last year from the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense research institute. "Increased Chinese military capability in the region which has already fuelled concerns in Japan and the U.S. means that the potential for an incident involving military forces has increased. Given the substantial economic interdependence of the three countries, the impact could be very significant and have global consequences.”