Up In The Air

Last week, in a series of incidents overshadowed by the aftermath of the deal brokered on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, tensions spiked in the air above a disputed collection of islets in the East China Sea.  On Saturday, November 23, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the air space above the islands known as Diaoyu by the China (as well as Taiwan) and Senkaku by the Japan. The islands, located in the East China Sea, while claimed by both China and Taiwan, are administered by Japan. The Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone “…would allow its military to ‘take emergency defensive measures’ against unidentified aircraft…”. More from the Los Angeles Times:

“‘The patrol is in line with international common practices, and the normal flight of international flights will not be affected,’ Shen Jinke, a spokesman for the Peoples Liberation Army air force, was quoted telling the state press. As predictable in the diplomatic war of words with Japan, Tokyo denounced the zone as unacceptable and ‘very dangerous.'” (LA Times, November 23)

Further, China stated its intention to establish and enforce similar zones in the air above other disputed areas, notably in the South China Sea. More from the LA Times:

“The Chinese defense spokesman noted in the interview that some 20 other countries have similar air defense identification zones. The statement suggested that China also plans a similar zone over the South China Sea, where it is locked in territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others.” (November 23, LA Times)

On Monday, the United States sent two B-52 bombers through the zone, in direct violation of the Chinese declaration. 11 hours later, the Chinese military issued a statement claiming that it had “…monitored the flights…’.  Japan and South Korea followed suit, conducting military overflights through the declared zone on Friday, further ratcheting up the tension over the islands. On November 29, China sent its own warplanes through the zone. The USA Today has published a summary of the incidents.

Marvin Kalb of the Brookings Institution questioned what was happening in the skies over the East China Sea, with two important geopolitical analysts weighing in:

“The subject at the Aspen Strategy Group was ‘The Future of American Defense.’ The speakers were Michelle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense for policy, and Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Not until time was running out on this otherwise interesting review of American defense policy was a question raised about the future of American policy towards China. Both speakers quickly leaped at the question, labeling it, in no uncertain terms, as the most important strategic question facing the Obama administration. Both argued that the U.S. had to engage China in the solution of global problems — make China a ‘stakeholder,’ they said, using a word many forward-thinking diplomats have begun to apply to the U.S.-China dialogue.” (Brookings Institution, November 26)

War on the Rocks has provided some intriguing analysis. Ryan Evans asked some questions about the zone at the site on November 23. Dr. Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, observed the history behind the recent actions, posting an article at War on the Rocks on November 25, writing:

Chinese-Japanese maritime tensions have risen steadily since 2008.  That’s when Beijing first stepped up its maritime activities.  But relations deteriorated steeply in September 2012 after Japan effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyutai).  China’s response has been to increasingly contest and then to routinize its maritime challenge to Japan’s administrative control in the territorial waters surrounding these islands.  Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels regularly conduct a figure-eight patrol pattern around the islands–mostly just outside of their 12 nautical mile territorial limits, but also partly just inside that international legal boundary.

Peter Lee of the International Policy Digest, remarking on the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone and Chinese claims of responsibility for a portion of the airspace, encouraged a more complex analysis and observed a bit differently:

“It’s the entire East China Sea north of Taiwan. It’s targeting Japan, to be sure (for valid reasons) but the Senkakus are only a tiny part of it–that little bend in the lower right quadrant otherwise wouldn’t cover the Senkakus. That means that when Japan’s SDF flies planes over there, they should talk to the PRC. I think that’s a good thing…”

More generally, the ongoing dispute in the East China Sea is the latest in a series of incidents that threaten to destabilize east Asia. American officials fear that continuing challenges to territorial claims could catalyze an arms race in a strategically vital area for American economic and security interests. While the countries represent two of the world’s largest economies, the fear is that rising tensions will begin to affect markets as overflights and zone declarations continue.

While China and Japan continue to challenge each other over competing claims to key areas in the East China Sea, U.S. diplomatic officials work to secure the release of American Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean war veteran who was detained by North Korea while attempting to fly back to the United States on October 26. While continuing to work to tamp down anxieties over the provocative actions of Kim Jong-Un’s government in North Korea, analysts observe that disputes between Japan and China could spike over the newly established Air Defense Identification Zone as the two countries taunt each other over the East China Sea. Perhaps Simon Tisdall’s report at the UK Guardian is most disconcerting. Reporting on the comments of Japanese officials and analysts, Tisdall noted the historical context of the rising tensions, conveying the thoughts of one official:

“According to a senior government adviser, the security situation in the east Asian region has begun to resemble Europe in the 1930s, when a resurgent, re-arming Germany began to project its power beyond its borders.” (UK Guardian, November 27)

Security concerns and economic interdependence continue to cause anxiety for observers and analysts of East Asian geopolitics. As the world’s eyes focus on North Africa and the wider Middle East, heightened tensions in East Asia could boil over rather quickly, drawing in a number of powerful actors and setting the stage for protracted conflict.

Some additional resources for further research on the topic are linked below.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.