In a rare slap in the face to Beijing, last week the U.S. flew two of its unarmed B-52 bombers into China’s newly-established East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. The air defense zone had been recently created in order to assert Beijing’s claim to disputed territorial waters of the East China Sea and to “guard against potential air threats”. The zone covers a wide area of the East China Sea between South Korea and Taiwan, including the controversial airspace above the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands – which Beijing claims as the Diayou islands. In an early test of regional reactions, Beijing scrambled air force jets to carry out a patrol mission, hours after declaring the new zone. Japan quickly responded by scrambling its own fighter jets – for the second time this month in response to Chinese fighter jets closing in on its airspace. The U.S. flights were quickly followed by incursions from Japanese and South Korean military planes, and later in the week Beijing again sent fighter jets into the zone.
While the U.S. military response to China’s declaration of the defense zone may at first seems shocking, Washington had been placed in an extremely awkward position as the leading military power in the region and close ally of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had earlier warned Beijing the U.S. would not respect China’s declaration of control over the zone, and reiterated that the islands fell under the U.S.-Japan security treaty, thereby implying Washington would defend Tokyo if the area is attacked. Washington rightly decided to merely condemn the creation of the air defense zone in strong terms would not have alleviated the increased tensions among Washington’s allies in the region. Fortunately, the flights did not result in an international incident, perhaps due to Hagel’s early warning and the fact bombers were unarmed and taking part in “training exercises”. Some may have feared a repeat of the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace off China’s southeastern coast. The accident resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, and the 10-day interrogation of the U.S. Crew, which was forced to make a landing on China’s Hainan island. The flights also fit safely into Washington’s narrative of taking no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands – merely wanting to ensure the safe navigation of aircraft in the region.
Often standing up to a bully is the only way to make him back down – back in 1996, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers into China’s new exclusion zones for missile tests in the Taiwan Strait. But don’t expect this proud bully to slowly withdraw into isolation. Beijing has lost serious face among the international community, and realizing this, sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea. The Liaoning, a reconditioned Ukrainian vessel, was escorted by two destroyers and two frigates to carry out “scientific research, tests, and military drills”. Tests include the ship’s propulsion, communications and navigation systems in high waters, but the launching and recovering of fixed-wing aircraft at sea is expected to take several more years.
While the Liaoning has a long way to go before it can be declared “combat-ready”, the show of strength will play well at home with China’s fervent nationalists, and Beijing can claim to have regained “its face”. The Obama Administration has done well to quickly and proactively erase the lines drawn in the air by Beijing, and can claim the moral high ground for freeing up the skies for international navigation. But those confident this puts an end to the crisis are few. Beijing will continue to push forward its claims in the East and South China Sea, and possibly create new air defense zones in the northern part of the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. Beijing will also apply incremental pressure on its neighbors who lay claim to the territorial waters, and American and Japanese commercial interests in China may also be hit with pesky new restrictions and regulations making it more difficult to do business on the mainland.
U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is due in Beijing tomorrow as part of a week-long trip to Asia, including visits to Japan and South Korea. Biden needs to reiterate Washington’s position on freedom of navigation in the region, while also making it clear to Beijing that specific actions taken contrary to the spirit of free navigation, such as the creation of new zones or the shooting down of a Japanese aircraft, will result in specific consequences. With these recent developments in the air and on the high seas, it is easy to get ahead of ourselves and start beating the war drums. But the last thing sensible heads in the PLA want is military action against the U.S., so the protracted dispute over territory in the East and South China Seas needs to finally move away from more militarization and toward enhanced diplomatic efforts