China's announcement of a new air defense zone highlights its ambitions as a military power in a region where it has competing territorial claims with neighbors including Japan and the Philippines. It also comes at a time when the U.S. is upgrading its emphasis on the region and appears willing to challenge the Chinese claim.
China announced on Saturday that it was establishing an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. It said aircraft flying in the zone must, among other things, "report the flight plans" to the Chinese Foreign Ministry or the country's Civil Aviation Administration, adding that it will take "defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft" that don't cooperate. It didn't specify what those measures might be.
The zone includes territory claimed by Japan – more specifically a chain of islands the Japanese call Senkakus and the Chinese call Diaoyu.
Japan and the U.S. said they won't respect the Chinese air zone. Indeed, the U.S. flew two B-52s through the space on Tuesday, and China said Wednesday that it tracked the aircraft during their flights.
Japan's major airlines, including Japan Airlines and ANA, initially said they would inform China of their flight plans. But upon the Japanese government's intervention, the airlines reversed course.
China, of course, isn't the only country with such a zone. As this story in Foreign Policy notes: "China's publication of the zone is undeniably a provocation (so, too, the U.S. response). But it is also, in Chinese eyes at least, in line with international norms of airspace and transparency. The United States has a clearly defined ADIZ; the website of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warns of 'use of force' in the 'case of non-compliance.'"
China's establishment of the zone comes as the Obama administration is making a U.S. "pivot to Asia."
Analysts have noted that the pivot is one way to check China's rise, but as this story in The Atlantic points out, the pivot involves both trade as well as military steps. The story notes that "the United States is the only country with enough muscle to check China's rise, and many of the smaller countries in East Asia have sought reassurance from Washington that it remains invested in the region."
China maintains that it wants good relations with its neighbors, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported on Morning Edition China's establishment of the zone "could set back its efforts to reassure Asian neighbors of its good intentions. And it could add momentum to U.S. efforts to shift military assets to Asia."
Vice President Joe Biden is expected to raise the issue in a visit to Beijing next week, Reuters reported.
Biden will tell Chinese policymakers that "there's an emerging pattern of behavior that is unsettling to China's own neighbors, and raising questions about how China operates in international space and how China deals with areas of disagreement with its neighbors," a U.S. official told reporters on a conference call, according to the news agency.
Are There Parallels?
China claims nearly all of the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
China is also involved in two other maritime territorial disputes in the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the area. Both China and Vietnam claim the Paracel Islands. China, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam claim the Spratly Islands.
In an overview of China's maritime disputes, the Council on Foreign Relations notes:
"China's maritime disputes span centuries. The tug-of-war over sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senakus in the East China Sea can be traced back to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, while Japan's defeat in World War II and Cold War geopolitics added complexity to claims over the islands. The fight over overlapping exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea has an equally complex chronology of events steeped in the turmoil of Southeast Asian history. Globalization ... and recent developments like the U.S. 'pivot' to Asia have further connected the two disputes."
But as Anthony reported in his story, John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, has argued that as China becomes more powerful, it will likely try to force the U.S. out of Asia, just as America once told the European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere.
"We have this thing called the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is still operative today," Mearsheimer said in a recent speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "If China gets really powerful and it tries to project power into the Western hemisphere, we will not be happy. Should we expect China to have its own Monroe Doctrine? Of course we should."