China just upped the ante over a territorial dispute with Japan. But in doing so, it seems to be sending a message to the United States as it pivots east: Stay out of our way.
China's announcement Saturday that it had created an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) coupled with a demand that any non-commercial air traffic would have to submit flight plans prior to entering the area, represented by all accounts a significant provocation. China is attempting to assert its authority over a group of uninhabited islands south of Japan and just east of the Chinese mainland in the East China Sea. But the creation of the new zone is probably less about the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus by China, as it is China's desire to flex its muscles in its own backyard as the U.S. rebalances its own strategy east.
China's decision will complicate relations as the United States seeks to build a more trusting relationship with the Asian giant and develop diplomatic efforts on a number of fronts. And it will pose a challenge to Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to make a stop in China on a trip through Asia next month. White House National Security spokesperson Caitlin Hayden wouldn't say if the development would affect Biden's trip.
"We are very concerned about this escalatory development which increases regional tensions and affects U.S. interests and those of our allies. We have conveyed our strong concerns to China and are coordinating closely with allies and partners in the region," she said in a statement.
The area China has created isn't so much a no-fly zone as it is a yellow flag area. If the United States or another country's military flies inside the area without seeking permission first, China could respond with military force. Many countries, including the United States, have the same kind of zone around their borders. But China's move essentially puts any non-commercial flight through that area on equal footing with a flight over its own airspace.
That makes it virtually impossible for the United States or anyone else operating in the region to ignore China's claim over the area. But it's not clear how far China will really go. The United States has already said it will continue its own military operations in the zone without asking permission. And at least one knowledgeable expert believes the United States will soon assert its authority by doing just that, and test China's resolve.
"I would expect within the very near future, that [the United States] will fly through that ADIZ just to demonstrate that we reserve the right to do so," said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But that doesn't mean there will be another war in the Pacific. China could choose to ignore any U.S. aircraft in the region, or it might respond by scrambling fighter jets to escort them through the zone.
All of this could pose an enormous risk, either through escalation or by accident. In April 2001, there was a mid-air collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island about 100 miles from China. The 24-member crew was detained and questioned for about 10 days before being released.
"This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Saturday, reaffirming the American commitment to the defense of Japan. "We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners," according to the statement.
Rep. Randy Forbes, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has been active on "Asia rebalance" issues, told Foreign Policy in a statement that he was happy to see the State and Defense Departments respond forcefully to the Chinese act, affirming the U.S. commitment to defending Japan. But it's not sufficient, he said.
"It is increasingly clear to me that politely conveying to China our continued frustration with their willingness to use military coercion and forms of legal warfare to bully their neighbors is just not enough," Forbes said. "It is time we explore imposing new forms of diplomatic and strategic costs on Beijing for this behavior, including an increase in our operations and exercises in the East and South China Seas."
While China will be faced with either enforcing the zone it just established or backing off, Japan will also need to decide how to respond, said Michael Auslin, a scholar specializing in Asian regional security at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute. "A wrong decision could lead to bloodshed," he said.
Auslin said it is worth examining why China made this move now. Is it because they don't believe the United States will back up Japan in an air clash?
"Both Japan and the U.S. need to come up with very clear [rules of engagement] for a variety of contingencies" based on this, Auslin said.
But not all analysts see it as an immediate cause for panic. China's moves so far have not directly challenged the Japanese, said Carl Baker, another analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The strong response from both Secretary of State John Kerry and Hagel despite that reflects growing concern Japan's faith in its alliance with the United States, Baker said.
Statements by Hagel and Kerry both reference Japan's claim that China's decision destabilizes the area. It is probably necessary to to reassure Japan that the U.S. supports Japan's right to administrative control of the Senkakus, but China launching an air defense zone alone does not directly challenge Japan's claim, Baker said.
"By essentially ignoring the nuance of the nature of an ADIZ and dismissing China's claims that it was establishing the ADIZ to protect its sovereign territory," Baker said, "the United States has moved a step away from its claim that it does not take a stand on the territorial claims regarding the Diaoyus and Senkakus."