Top Obama administration and Pentagon officials signaled a willingness to temporarily accept China's new, controversial air defense identification zone on Wednesday. Those officials expressed disapproval for the way in which the Asian power has flexed its muscles, and cautioned China not to implement the zone. But they also carved out wiggle room in which the United States and China ultimately could find common ground on the issue, indicating that they may be willing to live with the zone for now -- as long as China backs off its demand that all aircraft traveling through it check in first.
"It wasn't the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, America's highest-ranking military officer. "It was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign airspace of China. And that is destabilizing."
That's a change from just a few days ago, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden demanded that China take back its declaration of the zone. And it's another demonstration that China's recent decisions have forced the United States to tread carefully. On Wednesday, Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for more than five hours, according to a senior administration official. In brief public remarks midway through the marathon session, Biden didn't mention the air defense zone at all.
Japan, a vital American ally, has expressed fury over the Chinese move and ordered its commercial airliners not to provide information about their flight paths to the Chinese military. By contrast, the United States made a point of flying a pair of B-52s through it last week, but seems to have accepted that China will keep the zone in place indefinitely. U.S. officials have shifted their focus instead on preventing a potential military clash between Japan and China.
In meetings in Beijing on Wednesday, Biden laid out the U.S. position in detail, reiterating that the United States does not recognize the new zone and has deep concerns about it, a senior administration official said. Biden told Xi that the United States wants China to take steps to lower tensions in the region, avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish communication with Japan and other countries in the region to avoid altercations, the administration official added. Privately, Biden did not call for the air defense identification zone it to be rolled back -- something administration officials had done Monday while Biden was visiting Japan. Instead, the vice president asked the Chinese leader to be careful about how his country operated the zone going forward.
"He indicated to Xi that we are looking to China to take steps as we move forward to lower tensions, to avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish channels of communication with Japan, but also with their other neighbors to avoid the risk of mistake, miscalculation, accident or escalation," the official told reporters in Beijing.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the United States does not recognize the zone and China "should not implement it." Administration officials said Biden's message reflects the White House's growing concerns that China's establishment of the air defense identification zone risks sparking a regional crisis. In the long term, the officials said, the United States wants China to eliminate the air defense entirely. With China already patrolling the zone with fighter jets, the officials said the White House was focused on preventing the growing tensions between Japan and China from getting worse. That includes temporary measures like pushing the two countries to establish a hotline designed to ensure that a miscommunication doesn't lead a clash between the two countries.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took a measured approach. They said the major issue isn't the creation of the zone itself, but the way China has handled it and the country's demand that aircraft entering the zone share their flight plans.
"It's not that the ADIZ itself is new or unique," Hagel said. "Our biggest concern is how it was done so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation, or international consultation. That's not a wise course of action to take for any country."
Dempsey expanded on that, saying that the ADIZ the Chinese established isn't their sovereign airspace, but international airspace adjacent to it. The international norm for such an area, Dempsey said, is for aircraft to check in with the country declaring an ADIZ only if it intends to enter sovereign airspace afterward. Many other countries, including the United States, also have ADIZ areas established.
The remarks open the possibility that if China backs off its demand that all aircraft in the ADIZ share their flight plans, the United States could lighten up on China establishing a zone. That's unlikely to please Japan, however.
Hagel indirectly addressed that Wednesday. Despite calling China's rollout of the air-defense zone unwise, he also stressed the United States' growing relationship with the Chinese military. He advocated for the preservation of security and free shipping lanes for all players in the region, and sent a message to other U.S. allies in the region -- including Japan.
"It's important for China, Japan, South Korea, all the nations in this area to stay calm and responsible," he said. "These are combustible issues."
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