On Nov. 23, the Chinese government declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, demanding that non-Chinese aircraft inform Beijing of flight plans whenever they pass through it. The area includes the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands — called Senkaku by Tokyo — which are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China.
The move took place just over a week ahead of a planned trip to Asia by Vice President Joseph Biden that was originally focused on advancing the White House’s goal of securing, by the end of the year, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a major trade pact involving 12 nations that comprise 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and does not include China, the U.S. rulers most formidable rival power. The trip has now taken on the additional purpose of trying to respond to Beijing’s move, while averting any military confrontations.
Beijing’s announced air defense zone overlaps parts of similar zones declared by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In its announcement the Chinese Defense Ministry said its armed forces would take unspecified “defense emergency measures” against aircraft that didn’t identify themselves and obey instructions from Chinese authorities.
Both Washington and Tokyo promptly flew unannounced military aircraft into the zone, including two B-52 bombers by the Pentagon Nov. 26. “U.S. defense officials said there would be further military exercises in the area,” reported the Wall Street Journal, “and acknowledged it is possible that China could attempt to contact or intercept the aircraft.”
Three days later, Tokyo flew 10 fighters and reconnaissance aircraft within the air defense zone, according to Col. Shen Jinke, a spokesperson for China’s air force, the Journal reported.
Meeting in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Dec. 3, Biden criticized China’s declaration of a new air defense zone, “but stopped short of joining Japanese leaders in demanding that it be scrapped,” noted the Financial Times.
Biden, who also plans to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping during his weeklong visit, said he was “deeply concerned” that tensions risked “accidents and miscalculations.”
After the Chinese air defense zone was announced, Japan’s two largest long-haul carriers, Japanese Air Lines and ANA Holdings, complied with Beijing’s request to notify the Chinese government of flight plans before crossing. But the Japanese government Nov. 27 ordered all commercial airlines to disregard this and has expressed disappointment that the U.S. government has not done the same.
U.S. expands military role in JapanJapan’s Self-Defense Forces are among the world’s largest armed forces, with annual military spending ranking sixth in the world last year — in Asia second only to China.
Washington has not taken an official position on who actually owns the Diaoyu Islands, but as a signer of a mutual defense treaty with Japan it backs military action undertaken by Tokyo.
In early October, U.S. and Japanese officials agreed to revise the 1997 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Long-range U.S. surveillance drones will now be placed in Japan for the first time, monitoring the East China Sea. Navy reconnaissance planes never before stationed outside the U.S. will patrol waters in the region. A new X-band U.S. missile defense radar system will be put in place in western Japan, augmenting one already set up in the northern part of the country. These two, combined with one being considered in the Philippines, would create a radar arc that could track any missile launched from North Korea and much of China.
Prime Minister Abe has also approved creation of a National Security Council and is promoting passage of a national secrets law. The bill, already approved by the lower house of Parliament, would impose stiff prison terms for “leaking” a vague array of diplomatic, military and other government secrets. “The bill could be used to prosecute not only officials who leak secrets,” stated the New York Times, “but also journalists or even university researchers who receive them.”
China’s air defense zone over the East China Sea further complicates a dispute with South Korea over a submerged helipad-equipped rock within the zone known as Ieodo in Korea and Suyan in China. South Korea administers the territory. The island is believed to be surrounded by natural gas and mineral deposits.
At the same time, economic relations between China and South Korea have been growing, with trade reaching $215 billion last year. The Barack Obama administration is pressuring Seoul against letting China’s telecommunications company Huawei develop South Korea’s advanced wireless network, citing “national security” concerns with China, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 3.
On Nov. 26, China sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, along with two destroyers and two frigates into the South China Sea for training exercises. The move evoked a strong response from the Philippine government, which is in conflict with Beijing over control of the Scarborough Shoals. China claims sovereignty over all land inside the South China Sea, including more than 40 islands.
In an effort to counter the rising power of China and keep up pressure on North Korea, the Pentagon has announced plans to increase the proportion of its warships in the Pacific from about half to 60 percent by 2020. And Washington is working to strengthen regional alliances and establish bases surrounding China, including the Pacific island Saipan, Australian air force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India and possible airbases in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, an unnamed U.S. Air Force general announced in September, according to foreignpolicy.com.
As part of this “Asia pivot,” Washington seeks to exploit differences between Beijing and several Southeast Asian governments — Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam — over these islands and territorial waters. More than half the world’s supertanker commerce travels through the South China Sea and vast reserves of oil and gas are believed to be located there.
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