Since I last wrote on this subject (“Territorial dispute could flare up,” Nov. 22, page 8), the situation has deteriorated further, requiring just a spark to ignite a bonfire. I am referring here to the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over an outcrop of uninhabited rocks jutting out of the East China Sea, which Japan and China respectively call the Senkakus and Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島).
Late last month, China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering a vast swath of the East China Sea over and around the disputed islands, including some in the South Korea-claimed maritime zone. What it means is that any foreign aircraft entering China’s zone will be required to notify Chinese authorities of their flight plans, as well as maintain radio contact or face unspecified “defensive emergency measures.” With Japan adamant about its sovereignty over the disputed islands, China decided to force the issue with its air defense zone. Whether this policy was clearly thought through with a plan b in the event that China’s directive was flouted is not quite clear.
Indeed, the US, Japan and South Korea all decided to ignore the Chinese ADIZ by flying their military aircraft without communicating their flight plans, with one important difference: US authorities have advised their civilian airlines to comply with the Chinese directive, yet insisted this does not mean US acceptance of China’s position. Japan, though, has advised its airlines to ignore the Chinese directive.
After appearing to fumble on its follow-up response, Beijing is slowly refining its approach, which is a combination of avoiding any military action while reinforcing its position by scrambling fighter jets and carrying out “routine” patrols. Beijing seems to be conveying the message that it has the capacity to enforce its security if threatened. An important motivation for China to declare its ADIZ, apart from putting Japan on notice, was to test the limits of the US’ resolve, in what Beijing considers a bilateral territorial issue between China and Japan.
The US has tried not to take a formal position on the sovereignty issue, but has acknowledged Japan’s administrative control and has stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the US-Japan security pact. In other words, the US will be bound militarily to protect Japan if these islands came under attack from China. During his recent Japan visit, later followed by trips to China and South Korea, US Vice President Joe Biden was critical of China’s actions as efforts to “unilaterally change the status quo,” and said that it had raised “the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” China has reportedly called the zone a fact of life that the world needed to accept.
China’s action has also invited criticism from Australia as a close ally of both the US and Japan. This invited a strong reaction from Beijing and a stern warning to Canberra to “correct” its mistake to avoid damaging their bilateral relationship.
Australia appeared unfazed by the Chinese reaction, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arguing that Canberra has a stake in the region and therefore opposes “action by any side that we believe could add to the tensions or add to the risk of a miscalculation in disputed territorial zones in the region.”
Indeed, Australia has taken a very strong stand, despite some concern that it could seriously affect economic ties with its largest trading partner. However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot pointed out: “China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to trade with us.”