Originally Published 2013-11-29 09:54:18 Published on Nov 29, 2013
East China Sea: Disputed islands to disputed airspace

China and Japan have contesting claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea (ECS) with Tokyo currently controlling the islands after purchasing them from private Japanese ownership in 2012. China strongly protested the move as it considers the islands an integral part of its sovereign territory. Since then, China and Japan have been in dispute over rights around the islands, asserting their claims to the territory and the area surrounding it. Tensions in the region escalated further when China announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the ECS. The ADIZ covers the airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, resulting in strong protests from Tokyo. The development also raised concerns amongst non claimant nations such as the US, Australia and South Korea as they fear infringement upon freedom of flight in the airspace over the high seas. Washington, refusing to recognise the ADIZ, stated that it would continue to conduct military operations in the region as before. China’s move to create the ADIZ over the disputed ECS has raised concerns in the region with the possibility of an armed conflict.

The Ministry of National Defense of China on November 23 released a statement announcing the establishment of an ADIZ over the ECS. The statement read that "China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions". The announced ADIZ is being criticised by the international community and escalated tensions in the already hostile region.

Opposing the established ADIZ, Tokyo said that "The announced measures have no validity whatsoever on Japan, and Japan demands China to revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace". Accusing China of attempting to unilaterally change the status quo in the ECS, Japan urged against such "dangerous acts". Washington too has lodged complaints against the move and criticised China for the development. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a statement saying that "The United States is deeply concerned by the People’s Republic of China<’s> announcement today that it is establishing an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.

We view this development as a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region. This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations". Addressing concerns regarding US activities in the region post the development, Hagel emphasised that "this announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region". Washington also reaffirmed its commitment toward its allies in the event of an armed conflict by stating that "We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands". The stern response by Japan and the US has added on to the rising tensions in the region.

However, it is unlikely for either Tokyo or Washington to mellow given that Beijing has been very assertive in its claims in the region. Canberra and Seoul too has voiced their concerns on the development. Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said that "Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea". South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se pointed out that "the issue of the air defence identification zone is making the already difficult regional situations even more difficult to deal with". There is a strong regional response against the ADIZ over the disputed ECS.

Beijing on the other hand has expressed anger at Tokyo and Washington’s reactions. China’s Ministry of National Defense Spokesperson, Yang Yujun, said that Japan’s reaction was "absolutely groundless and unacceptable". Yang explained that "the move is a necessary measure for China to effectively exercise the self-defense right and conforms to the Charter of the United Nations and international laws and practices". Additionally he said that "Having established its own air defense identification zone in late 1960s, Japan has no right to make irresponsible remarks on China’s setup of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone". An opinion from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense argued that Tokyo and Washington are "overreacting".

Beijing has also urged Washington against internationalising the issue explaining that the move is not directed toward any specific country. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang urged the US to "make good on its commitment, that is, neither taking sides nor releasing improper remarks any more". He also urged the non-claimant to "immediately correct mistakes and stop making irresponsible accusations against China". Washington has always maintained that it does not take sides in the territorial disputes of the region. Although the US does not have any direct claims in the disputes, it has its own interests given the "pivot to Asia" and its alliance with Japan and the Philippines.

Clearly defying China’s newly established ADIZ, the US flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through the airspace over the ECS. True to the statement released earlier, Washington conveyed the message that China’s claim to the airspace will not affect US military activities in the region. Pentagon officials said that the B52s were on a routine training when they entered the ADIZ on November 26, 2013- three days after Beijing’s announcement to police the area. Beijing’s Ministry of Defense said that it monitored the two bombers that flew through the zone. Chinese media on November 27, 2013 reported that a PLA Air Force General warned hostile aircraft against entering the airspace over the ECS. He clarified that "any foreign aircraft disobeying warnings and deemed to be "hostile" could be shot down in China’s newly-established air defense identification zone". Additionally, Beijing’s Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng asserted that "China is capable of exercising effective control over this airspace" and that "China will identify every aircraft flying in the air defense identification zone".

Beijing has ongoing disputes with five countries in the South China Sea (SCS) and with Japan in the East China Sea. China’s aggressive assertions on its claims resulted in the other disputing nations seeking support outside of the region. Amidst the ongoing tension over the ADIZ, Beijing on November 26, 2013 sent its sole aircraft carrier- the Liaoning -to the SCS for training purposes, crossing the Taiwan Strait on the way. The move is bound to raise eyebrows as the Liaoning’s presence in the disputed waters signifies Beijing’s growing assertiveness over the maritime conflicts in the region.

Many of the Southeast Asian nations have welcomed the US pivot in the wake of a rising and dominating Beijing. This has led to a deterioration of China’s bilateral relationships with some of its neighbours. As Washington garnered support in SE Asia, China’s top two leaders set out to mend ties with the ASEAN nations in early November 2013. It has become necessary for China to change its image in the region as it perceives the US pivot as a ’contain China’ policy. While President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had a successful SE Asia tour, they avoided Washington’s ally and disputing nation in the South China Sea -- the Philippines. China was even criticised for the ’measly’ aid that it initially offered in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged Philippines in early November.

However, the recent developments carry a high risk of confrontation and miscalculation in the already volatile region. Beijing’s unilateral move to extend its authority and control in the region runs against its policy to change its image amongst its neighbours. Although the new leadership has been more engaging than its predecessor, it has maintained its policy in aggressively defending what it believes as China’s sovereign territory.

Given the tension and the likelihood of a conflict, all parties concerned should regularly engage through dialogue and consultations on the contested areas. The region is an active flashpoint for military conflict and the key actors must be careful while implementing their strategies and policies in the area. The recent developments in the East China Sea are dangerous. As tension and risk escalate, a minor accident may lead to a confrontation seriously threatening the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific.

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