Herbert London: Chinese Air Defense Zone

Dec 4, 2013

The negotiations over Iran’s potential nuclear weapons arsenal has pushed all other foreign policy issues out of the headlines. But as Washington muses about Iran, one of the boldest attempts to challenge the U.S. as a Pacific power has occurred with very little commentary.

Recently China unilaterally created an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea that has the Senkaku Islands within its perimeter. These islands now claimed by China have been administered by Japan since an accord signed in 1972.

While the Chinese describe this perimeter as “air defense,” in actuality it is “air control.” In fact, the way the perimeter is drawn comes within 80 miles of Japanese territory. These Chinese air patrols have already encountered Japanese Coast Guard vessels and air defense planes in what can only be described as a game of who blinks first.

This “zone” has already had a profound influence on regional states. The South Koreans distrust Chinese ambitions, but may distrust Japan even more. Some commercial airlines have already agreed to recognize the Chinese identification zone, albeit Japan’s aviation authority ordered national airlines to disregard the Chinese air zone. Most analysts assume China will employ this zone of influence to push aggressively for the “satisfactory” resolution of island disputes with Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

But the most significant development is the challenge to U.S. hegemonic regional influence. Recognizing a U.S. government distracted by Iranian negotiations in Geneva, the Chinese acted. The head to head confrontation between these Pacific superpowers, that the American government wants to avoid, is now upon us. If the U.S. allows this perimeter to stand unchallenged, the East China Sea will be regarded as a Chinese aerial protectorate in a few months.

In an effort to calm jittery allies in the region, the U.S. government sent a pair of B-52 bombers over the disputed islands and well within the Chinese perimeter. At this point, there hasn’t been a Chinese response. But there will be other challenges as long as China and her neighbors are jostling for control of waters with potentially rich hydrocarbon reserves.

China’s Defense Ministry noted that the Chinese military would take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that didn’t obey the rules of the newly created zone. White House spokesman, Josh Ernest, said, the dispute between China and Japan should be settled diplomatically, but also noted “The policy announced by the Chinese…is unnecessarily inflammatory.”

It was merely a question of time before U.S. supremacy in the Pacific was tested. For years the U.S. and China have been on a collision course, notwithstanding American efforts to placate Chinese ambitions. As China sees it, this is the ideal time for a confrontation.

The U.S. is withdrawing forces in several nations indicating both war fatigue and budgetary restraints. Negotiation with the Iranians has become a State and Defense department preoccupation. Despite President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, our allies on the continent are apprehensive about the American defense commitment. At a recent conference I attended in Tokyo the most often heard refrain was “where is the United States?”

The question, of course, is really “where is the U.S. when we need her.” Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines need her now. Clearly the U.S. does not want a confrontation with China; a view probably shared by the Chinese government. But the Chinese believe the United States will back down. B-52’s may fly today and possibly tomorrow, but does the U.S. have the will to sustain resistance to the assertion of Chinese power? In the answer to that query lies the future of the Pacific. An unchallenged China will regard herself as dominant over the contested islands in the East China Sea and even regional nations, soon to be viewed as satellites in the reconfigured Middle Kingdom.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.