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While Washington and the world furiously debated the interim agreement between Iran and the United States over the weekend, Nov. 24, 2013, may go down in history as the day America lost Asia.
Starting this past Sunday, China began air patrols over its newly designated “air defense identification zone” over the East China Sea—home to a chain of islands disputed with Japan—and within 24 hours Beijing turned 80 years of free aerial navigation on its head. China’s move is no less dramatic than Iran’s potential victory in gaining the right to enrich uranium: Absent an effective U.S. response, China has successfully begun changing the rules of international security in East Asia. And with a whimper, not a bang, Washington may begin losing its influence in Asia, despite its still-preponderant strength.
Here are four things the world should note about China’s bold move.
First, let’s call it what it is. Beijing has declared an air control zone, not a defense zone. Normally, in air defense zones countries seek to identify aircraft in that are close to or approaching national territory. Think of the analogue with territorial waters. Obviously, airplanes that fly over national territory, such as commercial airliners, must identify themselves. But they are also presumed to be engaging in innocent passage, just like cargo or passenger ships on the seas.
What China has done is very different. In claiming most of the East China Sea as a control zone—within 80 miles of Japanese territory at its closest point—the country is demanding that airplanes flying hundreds of miles from China’s actual territory must now identify themselves and declare their flight paths, even if they are not going to China. This is not defense: It is a not-so-subtle form of much wider control. While Chinese spokespersons say the move does not affect the freedom of international flights, the reality is much different. There is no basis for such a wide zone, other than to get foreign countries to accept that they are passing through what are, in essence, Chinese-controlled skies. And if a foreign plane doesn’t provide Chinese authorities the information they demand? China will then take “defensive emergency measures,” according to the government—in other words, shadow, threaten or shoot down foreign planes.
Second, Beijing’s announcement is a direct challenge to Japan and Korea, since China’s new control zone overlaps those of both Tokyo and Seoul. This, of course, is the whole idea, at least with respect to Japan: to chip away further at Japanese control of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, the chain of islands located in the East China Sea to the northeast of Taiwan that Japan and China both claim as theirs. In recent years, Tokyo has grown increasingly concerned about China probing in the waters off the islands, which Japan has administered since 1972 and over which it has claimed ownership since 1895. In an inept move last year, the Japanese government bought three of the disputed islands from their private owner, sparking the most serious crisis in Sino-Japanese relations in decades. In addition to a diplomatic freeze between the two countries and anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, Chinese paramilitary patrol ships have repeatedly entered into the contested waters, and Beijing has started flying patrol planes near their airspace, as well. Each time, the Chinese have been met by Japanese Coast Guard vessels and Air Self-Defense Force planes. Tensions are at a fever pitch, and one accident in the sky or waters could plunge the two into a crisis that nobody really wants.
The move over the weekend to make a legally accepted claim over the airspace of the Senkaku Islands is designed to force the issue. If Japan decides to contest China’s claim, then Asia’s two most powerful air forces will soon be playing games of aerial chicken at 600 miles per hour. If Japan retreats, then China will have made a huge step forward in getting its claims over the Senkakus and the East China Sea accepted.
Korea, too, is concerned with the overlap of its western air defense zone with China’s new claim, but Beijing is wooing Seoul, giving it prior notification and playing on Korean President Park Geun-hye’s deep distrust of Japan and desire to build closer relations with China. While Seoul should be just as worried about ceding China the authority to control the skies over the East China Sea, South Korean domestic politics is already giving Beijing a win by default.
The real question is how another country—the United States—will respond. The Pentagon has said U.S. military flights will not respect China’s new control zone, and indeed, on Tuesday, two U.S. bombers flew over the sea in what Pentagon officials said was a routine exercise. But heading forward, will the Obama administration give orders to tone down the amount of American flying in the region, so as not to provoke a crisis? What are the rules of engagement for the first time a Chinese air force plane demands that a U.S. military plane identify itself or turn back? Will U.S. forces back up Japanese air force planes that find themselves threatened?
Third, regardless of what the United States does, the danger is that the tide of regional trends is headed in China’s favor. Within just 24 hours of the establishment of the control zone, Asian governments and commercial air transport companies hastily announced that they would comply with Beijing’s demands. Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and even Japan all said that their commercial planes would identify themselves to Chinese authorities, notify China of their flight plans, and provide transponder information and logos. This effectively ends free aerial passage through international skies over one of the world’s busiest air corridors. Millions of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Americans, Indians and others transit among the capitals and major cities of Northeast Asia. Now, the lives of those innocent passengers lie in the hands of young Chinese fighter pilots, who have very little experience dealing with civilian airliners or uncertain situations. That is why so many nations have rushed to accept China’s demands: fear that the failure to do so will result in tragedy. Such is a world where might makes right.
Fourth, this is just the beginning. Already, the Chinese have said that they will set up other air control zones once the East China Sea area is pacified. That, of course, means the South China Sea, the world’s busiest waterways, where China is embroiled in island territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations like Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. If countries as rich and powerful as Japan and South Korea accede to Chinese control of international skies in their area, what hope is there for smaller nations to refuse? By Thanksgiving next year, all of East Asia may well be under a Chinese aerial protectorate, in which all nations fly at the sufferance of Beijing or its regional military commands. Next, the waters of the Yellow Sea, along the Korean littoral, may be similarly covered, thus forcing the United States to decide how it will do air operations off the peninsula.
All this may not come to pass, but Beijing has gambled that the United States is too distracted and too wary of conflict in Asia to oppose the new reality. Moreover, China assumes that smaller nations, even Japan, will ultimately decide to alter their behavior so as not to provoke a clash with their neighbor and largest trading partner. It also makes sense to force the issue before Japan and South Korea get advanced F-35 fighters, which would undoubtedly embolden them to reject Chinese demands. By 2020 or so, when other Asian air forces get next-generation fighters, China’s air control precedent could have been in place for more than a half-decade.
Americans are comfortable talking about freedom of the seas, and the U.S. Navy reminds the world regularly that it keeps the oceans open to all comers. Washington isn’t likely to brook any threats to freedom of maritime navigation, whether military or civilian. Neither should it accept restrictions on the freedom of aerial navigation. Yet it has already lost half the battle at the first shots. The Obama administration needs to make daily shows of force, flying fighters, more bombers, cargo and reconnaissance planes ostentatiously through the skies that China now claims. It should invite all nations in Asia to join with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy in regular aerial transits, simply for the right of it. U.S. planes should be on alert to come to the aid of any planes, military or civilian, that are threatened by China. And President Barack Obama, or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, should publicly urge all Asian nations to reject China’s demands and announce that any of them will be protected by U.S. fighter jets.
If the White House shrinks from taking these steps, the Chinese will have won a victory that will change the perception of the balance of power in Asia. And Americans will be flying the unfriendly skies, all alone.
Michael Auslin is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him @michaelauslin.
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