Tensions between the United States, Japan and China took a new turn Monday night when Vice President Joe Biden asked China to rescind the air defense identification zone it established Nov. 23 over contested islands in the East China Sea. Things could soon get even more interesting, however: the Navy's new P-8A Poseidon planes are arriving in Japan this week, offering the ability to destroy submarines, interdict ships and conduct surveillance on open seas.
The U.S. military insists the deployment of the P-8s has nothing to do with current friction between China, which has increased since the Asian giant created an area off its coast that it says other militaries must seek permission to use. In fact, the Pentagon first announced the deployment of the planes to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in October as part of a broader realignment that will also eventually include the deployment of more MV-22 Ospreys and F-35B Joint Strike Fighters from the Marine Corps and R-Q4 Global Hawk surveillance drones operated by the Air Force.
China responded by forming the air defense identification zone, or ADIZ. U.S. and Japanese officials reiterated Monday their militaries will not respect it, setting the stage for a possible altercation with the Chinese. The United States already has demonstrated as much, sending two unarmed B-52 bombers from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam on Nov. 27 over the contested islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese call the Diaoyus and the Japanese call the Senkakus.
On Monday, Vice President Biden asked China to take back its threat against unannounced aircraft in the ADIZ, saying failure to do so could lead to a dangerous altercation with Japan and its allies, including the United States. That occurred just hours after the Navy announced that the first of its new Poseidon planes had arrived in Japan. They will replace the aging P-3 Orion aircraft the Navy's 7th Fleet has used for years in the region, Navy officials said.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the P-8s will arrive in Japan in coming weeks. A Navy official told Foreign Policy the last of the planes could leave from Jacksonville, Fla., for Japan by Friday. They're armed with aerial torpedoes that target enemy submarines from the sky. A variant of the plane also will be fielded by India's Navy.
The P-8 is built by Boeing and was first received by the Navy in 2010. The service now has about 12 and expects to ultimately field 117. Rear Adm. Matt Carter, commander of the Navy's patrol and reconnaissance group, said in a news release last week that it's essential at a time when the number of submarines in the world is rapidly expanding.
"Other countries are either building or purchasing advanced, quiet, and extremely hard to find submarines and we need to be able to match that technology to be able to detect them," Carter said.
China has been expanding its own air arsenal. The U.S.-China and Security Review Commission warned the House Armed Services Committee in November about the Hongzha-6K, its new long-range bomber. It's an upgraded model of the twin-engine plane the Chinese have used for decades, but it has some significant bells and whistles - including the likely ability to carry cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
UPDATE, 4:05 p.m.: This blog entry elicited the following reaction from Chris Harmer, a retired naval aviator and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War:
@NoahShachtman LOL pay no attention to the P-8, it has NOTHING to do with China! Navy PR always good for a laugh...— chris harmer (@Navyharmer) December 3, 2013
Photo courtesy Boeing