While Washington and the world have been focused on the nuclear agreement reached with Iran last week in Geneva, on the other side of the globe, one of the parties to that deal, China, was at the very same time making the peaceful resolution of its dispute with Japan over a group of small islands in the East China Sea even less likely.
Out of the blue, the Chinese government announced it was creating an “air-defense identification zone” covering a huge swath of the East China Sea, including the airspace over Japan’s Senkaku Islands—the small set of islands that China and Taiwan refer to as Diaoyu. The Chinese defense ministry said it was taking this step “with the aim of safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order.”
Regular international commercial flights will not be affected, but other aircraft—presumably Japanese and American military aircraft—not “properly identifying themselves” will, the ministry blandly asserted, become targets of “defensive emergency measures.” So as to leave no uncertainty about Beijing’s seriousness in asserting control, within hours of the announcement, the Chinese Air Force carried out its first patrol in the zone, with reconnaissance planes, early warning aircraft, and jet fighters in support.
Coming on top of routine incursions of Chinese maritime and air assets into the waters and airspace surrounding the Senkakus over the past year, and the corresponding response by Japanese Coast Guard and military aircraft, Beijing’s newest step can only escalate tensions and increase the chances of a dangerous military confrontation.
The seed for the current confrontation was planted some 40 years ago during the Nixon presidency and under the guiding hand of national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Previously, the official U.S. government position was that, while under the terms of the peace treaty with Japan the United States would administer the Okinawa and Ryukyu Island chains, including the Senkaku islets, “residual sovereignty” resided with Japan. President Kennedy, in an executive order regarding the administration of the islands, had stated that the Ryukyus were “to be part of the Japanese homeland.”
But with the opening to China underway, the Nixon administration put in place a more “nuanced” position, declaring U.S. “neutrality” with respect to the various competing claims of sovereignty over the Senkakus by China, Taiwan, and Japan.
Although the dispute over the sovereignty of the eight islets is decades old now, Beijing’s more aggressive posture has gone hand-in-hand with the growth in China’s military and maritime capabilities. And Chinese ambitions have been aided and abetted by a general failure of successive American administrations to respond effectively to the shifting balance of power in Asia—a problem compounded by the Obama White House’s seeming indifference to ensuring its own plans for rebalancing in the region are not undone by the massive cuts to defense imposed by the Budget Control Act.
For its part, Japan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has set out an ambitious agenda to help address the changing security landscape. Plans include issuance of a national security strategy, the drafting of new guidelines governing U.S.-Japan military cooperation and operations, creation of a national security council to better coordinate security decision-making, and a new interpretation of Japan’s constitution to allow Japanese “self-defense” forces to engage for the first time in “collective defense” efforts with allies like the United States and Australia. And, in contrast with most of America’s allies, Tokyo will be adding to its defense budget, not cutting.
At least rhetorically, the administration has been supportive of this agenda, with the most recent affirmation coming at the conclusion in early October of the “two-plus-two” meeting in Tokyo of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and Japan’s ministers of foreign affairs and defense.
Nevertheless, the worry in Japan, as suggested by various officials on a recent trip there, was whether Washington would be fully on board as each of these measures was being rolled out. As one Japanese analyst dryly noted, Washington is wont to say: “Well, relations are good with China now, so let’s not upset them with something they will find provocative,” or, “Relations with China right now are somewhat rocky, can we hold off until things improve?”
It doesn’t help that little over one month after affirming at the “two-plus-two” meeting that the U.S.-Japanese “alliance is the cornerstone of peace and security in the region,” national security adviser Susan Rice declared, in a major policy address at Georgetown University, that, with China, the United States will “seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations.” The phrasing was first put forward by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, and Beijing reads it as Washington conceding China’s great-power status and prerogatives in shaping the Asian order.
In this context, although the Senkakus are relatively insignificant in size, the question of their control isn’t. The Senkakus sit astride a key strategic maritime node and are an important pathway for the Chinese Navy to escape the so-called first island chain and out into the broad Pacific. Hence, as a matter of deterrence and maintaining American naval preeminence in Asia, keeping the Senkaku Islands firmly in Japanese hands and, most immediately, continuing to exercise the American and Japanese militaries’ right to fly freely over the island group is critical.
If Susan Rice truly wants a new model of great-power relations with China, the first step the Obama administration should take is to make sure Beijing’s use of the old model of great-power bullying isn’t in any way tolerated or rewarded.