China’s announcement of a new air defense zone has turned Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia this week into a damage-control mission, underscoring how quickly the United States can get sucked into territorial disputes as it struggles for a clear policy response to an increasingly assertive China.
Analysts say the flare-up of tensions should serve as a reminder to the Obama administration to keep pursuing its stated goal of an “Asia pivot,” which so far has been overshadowed by Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern crises.
The air defense identification zone, known by the acronym ADIZ, took a dispute over a small chain of uninhabited islands to the skies, raising the risk of hostilities if the Chinese continue to demand identification from foreign aircraft over the angry objections of the United States and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.
While the immediate risk of hostilities has dissipated with China easing off thinly veiled threats to foreign aircraft, analysts warn that the matter is nowhere near resolved and could erupt again, drawing in the United States to defend Japan under the two countries’ mutual defense treaty.
“It’s not the ADIZ as a concern. It’s another piece of the assertiveness of the Chinese,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “They have the military capability they didn’t have 10 years ago and that’s disturbing to the Japanese and to others. We worry that that type of assertiveness, aggressiveness, could lead to an incident – maybe unintended – that could escalate into real conflict.”
The air defense zone is at the top of Biden’s agenda as he visits Japan, China and South Korea this week, just days after what Japan views as a major provocation in the two countries’ longstanding territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China calls the islands, which Japan has controlled since the 19th century, the Diaoyu.
The ADIZ includes the airspace over the islands, and some worry that complying with China’s requirement that planes flying into the zone identify themselves helps legitimize China’s claim to the islands. The Obama administration has recommended that U.S. airlines overflying the area comply with China’s demand.
Reflecting how that might then play out, the financial publication Investor’s Business Daily reminded in an editorial that China also has claimed the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, and has made nine incursions into territory claimed by the Philippines.
Speaking Tuesday in Tokyo, the first stop of his Asia trip, Biden told a news conference that the White House is “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.” Biden said U.S. officials were “closely consulting with our allies” in Japan and in Korea, which he will visit Thursday.
But Biden didn’t mention the air defense zone publicly in an appearance Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden praised the Chinese president as a candid and constructive leader and called for greater trust, “the basis on which real change, constructive change, is made.”
Such delicate diplomacy with China is required, analysts say, as the Obama administration tries to revamp a policy that some have dubbed “congagement,” an attempt to blend containment of growing Chinese military power with engagement on trade and diplomatic issues.
Analysts say this is just the type of dispute that could unravel the Obama administration’s plans for a multipronged re-engagement with Asia, where there’s already a robust U.S. military presence: 40,000 American troops in Japan, more than 28,000 in South Korea and 4,500 in Guam, a self-governing U.S. territory. The U.S. also maintains six aircraft carrier strike groups in the region and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which conducts regular joint military exercises with Asian allies.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has slightly softened its language on the air defense zone after initial statements that suggested Beijing would take defensive measures against aircraft that refused to comply with the new rules. However, the official English-language China Daily newspaper cautioned in an editorial this week that Biden shouldn’t “expect any substantial headway if he comes simply to repeat his government’s previous erroneous and one-sided remarks.”
“It’s a difficult balancing act to go to Tokyo and then China and have to reassure both,” said Ronak Desai, an Asia specialist and fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The message in both places will be: restraint.”
Desai said China is pursuing a policy of “incremental escalation,” small assertions of its claims over the Senkaku Islands and other disputed territories, and apparently didn’t expect such a furious response to its creation of the ADIZ.
In an act of defiance, the U.S. flew two B-52s through the airspace without notifying China, and the public message from the State Department was direct: “We don’t recognize it.” The U.S. position is that China’s ADIZ deviates from international standards by requiring aircraft to file flight plans with the Chinese government. Japanese and South Korean planes also have breached the zone since it was announced Nov. 23.
The U.S. response – defiant yet willing to talk – seems to have worked this time, analysts say. But they warn that Obama administration strategists still must make room for long-term Asia planning for what some call a “policy rebalance,” even as they’re struggling to stay ahead of events in the dynamic and volatile Middle East.
“The Chinese handed the U.S. an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the rebalance and why it’s still a priority for the administration,” Desai said.
CORRECTION: A previous quote in the story by Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, was incorrect.