US Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Japan, China and North Korea this week comes at a moment of major diplomatic tension in the region. Last week, Beijing unilaterally declared a new air defense identification zone to much international concern.
The zone covers an area that encompasses the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, which are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan. The dispute over the islands dates back at least three decades, but became much more heated last year when the Japanese government decided to nationalize three islets in the area.
Since the declaration of the air defense zone last week, Beijing has insisted that all flights, civilian and military, must submit flight plans before entering it.
The US and the EU have urged caution to calm regional tensions, and this is likely to be a theme Biden will emphasize in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.
In response to China’s declaration, US President Barack Obama’s administration has recommended that US commercial aircraft report their flight plans to Beijing, although US military aircraft continue to operate without notification.
Meanwhile, Japan, which also continues to operate flights in the zone, announced on Saturday that it has asked the UN organization that oversees civil aviation to examine whether the zone could undermine aviation safety.
Tokyo’s goal is to enhance international scrutiny of the issue in a bid to undercut Beijing.
While air zones are commonplace across the world, there is concern that China has both imposed this measure unilaterally and warned that it will take unspecified “emergency defensive measures” if aircraft do not submit flight plans. China has already frayed nerves by sending fighter jets to investigate US and Japanese aircraft in the zone.
Whatever Beijing’s motives in declaring the zone, it will add to the growing international tide of suspicion and sometimes even outright hostility as China increasingly asserts its growing power.
The central challenge that China faces is that its soft power — its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment — has lagged far behind its hard power built on its growing economic and military might.
In Japan, for instance, public favor toward China fell from 34 percent in 2011 to 15 percent last year largely in response to China’s new international assertiveness, according to Pew Global.
In the US, public favor toward China fell to 40 percent last year from 51 percent in 2011. Issues such as Beijing’s alleged currency manipulation, the large size of the US trade deficit with China and the large financial debt the US owes Beijing and alleged Chinese cybersecurity attacks on US interests have affected US public opinion.
With distrust of China growing, many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are actively strengthening their diplomatic alliances, particularly with Washington, in a bid to balance Beijing’s growing economic and military strength.
This is a political headache leaders in China could do without and it must now think carefully about how to enhance the nation’s image.
Beijing’s most pressing concern should be to restart a process of addressing the concerns about its intentions foreign governments have.
It needs to intensify efforts to be seen as a responsible, peaceful power and match its rhetoric with action.