The US Waffles on China’s Air Defense Zone

Asian nations looking for US protection in the face of concerns about China’s hegemonic designs on east and Southeast Asia are left baffled by Washington’s response to China’s controversial declaration of an air defense zone covering most of the East China Sea.

The first US reaction, clearly driven by highest level military concerns, was to send military aircraft through the zone without notifying the Chinese authorities. Japan and Korea did likewise and Japan’s civilian aircraft similarly ignored this great leap forward in China’s de facto claims over airspace close to the territorial waters of Japan and South Korea.

But since then the US, seemingly driven by a State Department that often appears to place short- term relations with China ahead of longer-term strategic questions, has adopted a somewhat ambiguous posture. The visit to the region by US Vice-President Joe Biden could have been used to condemn the Chinese action unequivocally and bolster Japanese and South Korean confidence in US determination to stand by them in rejecting Chinese presumptions.

As it happened, however, the US seemed set on avoiding provoking China into yet more aggressive claims – even though it was China’s announcement of the zone shortly before Biden’s visit, which was the immediate provocation.

Much of the western media also appeared to portray the air zone issue as simply an extension of China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands when even a glance at a map of the Chinese self-proclaimed zone shows it encompasses almost the whole airspace over the East China sea, not just the southwestern portion close to the Senkakus. Such misinterpretation must be music to China’s ears.

While in Beijing, Biden is reported to have told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US rejects the zone claim and looks to China to ease tensions by effectively not doing anything to enforce its claims. It could, for example, not do anything about plans, civilian or military, which fail to provide their flight plans to the Chinese authorities. Nonetheless, the claims are now on the record and having made them, President Xi may come under nationalist and populist pressure to try to enforce them.

The US position has clearly been weakened by its advising its own airlines to file their flight plans with China – unlike Japan. Not surprisingly, Japan has not been pleased with this failure to back its own position of declining to provide civilian flight information to the extent China demands. The US has explained its action by reference to the safety needs of civilian aircraft. However, that implies that China represents a risk to civilian aircraft which do not comply. Clearly China is not going to start shooting down commercial aircraft so the US response is in effect surrender to a theoretical threat. Stouter hearts would have called China’s bluff.

Many countries declare air defense zones which go well beyond their territorial waters as well as flight control zones for the safe operation of civilian aircraft. But these have no formal international standing and require neighboring countries to cooperate rather than compete in demanding exclusive rights.

The vast extension of China’s zone could be seen, most worryingly, as a preliminary move to be followed at some future date with attempts to enforce it first of all in the vicinity of the Senkakus, islands which the US recognizes as Japanese. It is also noteworthy how close the zone goes to Japan’s territorial waters in the vicinity of the Ryukyu Islands, and of Okinawa, with its US bases in particular.

In another direction, next on China’s agenda could be declaration of a similar zone above the South China sea, following the infamous nine-dash line of its claims there which take it almost up to the territorial waters of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, and very close to Indonesia’s Natuna islands. China’s ambassador in Manila Ma Keqing was quoted as saying that China had the right to set up a similar zone over the South China Sea.

Exactly how that “right” is defined has not been made clear. But if such a right exists, presumably other countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have similar rights to air defense zones extending close to China’s coast and its military airfields.

Given China’s world view and its history of expansion over most of the past 500 years (only during the period 1840-1945 was it on the defensive, against the west and Japan) it is hard to predict how far its ambitions now go. But Asian neighbors might like to see the US put more backbone into its response if they are to believe that its “tilt” towards Asia and the centrality of the western Pacific to US long-term strategic interests.