Crisis in the skies: China, Japan, the US and the East China Sea dispute

Japan’s refusal to accept that the islands are disputed rules out negotiations leaving China little option.

Dr. Jenny Clegg is senior lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. She is also the author of ‘China’s Global Strategy: toward a multipolar world

No sooner had China declared an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea area on November 23 than the airspace became filled with military aircraft – Japanese, South Korean, American B-52s, then Chinese.

With such heightened tensions, the fear is that a minor incident could spark a larger crisis bringing not only China and Japan but also China and the US, two nuclear-armed superpowers, into collision.

From reading the Western media, anyone would have thought that the next world war was about to break out, with China the instigator.

Yet China is doing nothing unusual let alone illegal: the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have all had ADIZs in operation in the region for many years.

Some background is necessary. The area in question includes a number of uninhabited islands – known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese – which are located 140km from Taiwan, 330km from China and 440 km West of Okinawa. They are under Japanese administration but are also claimed by China and Taiwan, who regard the current arrangements as a legacy of Japanese imperial rule.

China seas map

The islands were ceded to Japan in 1895 following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War. At the end of World War 2, the US took over their control until 1972 when they were returned to Japan, at which point the Chinese asserted their claim.

Oil reserves were discovered in 1968 but the situation is not so much a ‘scramble over resources’ as, for China, a matter of equal treatment: the 1945 Potsdam Declaration stipulated that the ownership of minor islands claimed by Japan was to be defined by the wartime allies, of course including the Republic of China at that time.

In denial over its past war crimes, Japan has resolutely refused to recognise that the islands are disputed. Last year, it swapped some of them at will from private to government hands amidst a clamour of right-wing nationalist fervour.

This provocation to China received not a word of reprimand from the West.

Indeed, when in 2010 Japan unilaterally doubled the size of its own ADIZ to within 130 km of China’s coast, this was in effect endorsed just a few months later by Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, who declared the islands to be covered by the US-Japan security pact and confirmed US commitment to opposing any unilateral action that would undermine their administration by Japan.

Rather than being driven forward by an expansionist nationalism, China’s latest move may well be a calculated test of US intentions in the region. The recent easing of tensions in the Middle East has left the US free to concentrate on its ‘Asia pivot’ whilst at the same time the US retreat from military intervention in Syria followed by Obama’s the cancellation of his visit to the Asia Pacific during the US government shutdown has raised questions about US commitment in the latter region.

Despite dispatching the two B-52 bombers, the US stopped short of calling for China’s ADIZ to be scrapped, much to the chagrin of the Japanese government. Has China succeeded in dividing the US and Japan? Or is it rather that the US seeks the role of ‘honest broker’ here between an increasingly assertive China and Japan’s unapologetic hawks.

In this way Obama might reclaim US authority as world leader, a role it has just been denied in the Middle East by Russian diplomacy.

With control over the key regional shipping lanes in its hands, the US has the power to cut off world trade with China. If China seeks to change this status quo, it does not mean that its aim is to replace American with Chinese hegemony.

Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that the Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries. China’s serious commitment to power-sharing in North East Asia is clearly indicated by its dogged efforts to get the six party talks on Korean denuclearisation going again.

The failure of the US to take the opportunity this year, the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice, to open the way to a peace treaty equally suggests that the US is not ready to make way for a multipolar determination of East Asian security.

The mixed signals from the US could lead to an even more dangerous confusion within the region.

There is still, however, a way back from conflict if the China-India border defence cooperation agreement, signed in October, were to be taken as a model. Both sides here seek to avert an escalation of tensions by committing to avoid the use of force or threat of force, to refrain from provocative actions and not to tail each others patrols.

Japan’s refusal to accept that the islands are disputed rules out negotiations leaving China little option. What would be the reaction if China declares further ADIZ’s over the seas that bear its name? For the region to descend into a downward spiral of conflict would be a disaster for the world economy.

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