China traded barbs with the U.S. and Japan over its newly announced air defense zone in the East China Sea as escalating tensions between Asia’s largest economies risked damaging a resurgence in trade.
China’s Defense Ministry filed protests to both nations’ embassies, calling Japan’s remarks “unreasonable” and the U.S. comments “wrong,” according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website today. Japan and South Korea said the zone, announced Nov. 23, wasn’t binding on them while the U.S. called its creation a destabilizing move.
The war of words further strained ties days after China announced the defensive zone and said aircraft entering the area must report flight plans and identify themselves. The territorial dispute in the East China Sea contrast with a nascent recovery in business, with exports to China rising 21.3 percent in October from a year ago, and add to pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as his government prepares to unveil its first postwar national security strategy next month.
“The risks of a major conflict stemming from an incident in the air or in the maritime domain ticked higher this weekend,” Scott Harold, who specializes in Chinese diplomacy at Rand Corp., a policy institute, said in an e-mail. “The step is highly provocative, a new development, and undoubtedly raises the prospect of conflict.”
While the U.S. doesn’t take sides in the territorial dispute, it recognizes Japan’s administration of islands in the area that are the center of the tensions. The U.S. is a treaty ally of Japan and in October the two set up a road map for defense cooperation during the next 20 years.
“We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
The islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, lie inside China’s new air defense zone. Both nations claim sovereignty over the area, whose waters are rich in oil, natural gas and fish. The dispute comes as China and Japan seek a greater role in the region, courting nations in Southeast Asia, and as China adopts a more conciliatory tone in another territorial spat with countries in the South China Sea.
China’s action “may escalate the situation and lead to unforeseen events,” Abe told a parliamentary committee today, adding that he was very concerned. “We urge China to revoke this measure, which is in no way binding on Japan.”
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned China’s ambassador, Cheng Yonghua, to protest the air-defense zone, news agency Kyodo reported today.
China said its military will take “defensive emergency measures” if aircraft entering the area don’t comply with its rules.
China’s zone is symbolic payback for Japan’s move last September to buy some of the islands from a private Japanese owner, said Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center and a former British diplomat in Beijing. “Things would be much less pleasant if there was actual physical contact and conflict, but both countries are now so economically tied to each other, I think this would be a sort of mutually assured destruction.”
The announcement of the zone follows a decision by Communist Party leaders this month, after a meeting led by President Xi Jinping, to form a state committee to coordinate security issues as China broadens its military reach.
“China is resolute in its will and resolve to defend its sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a briefing in Beijing today. “This current situation is totally caused by Japan’s erroneous actions.”
Qin reiterated previous government statements that the move isn’t directed against any specific country and is meant to protect China’s airspace. He said the U.S. should keep its word about not taking sides on the issue and “stop making irresponsible comments.”
Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said today the zone infringes on the principles of international law. He said that planes entering Japan’s own air defense identification zone are required to identify themselves.
The tensions come as officials from China, Japan and South Korea prepare for four days of talks starting tomorrow in Tokyo on a free trade agreement. The three sides will discuss issues including commerce in goods and services and intellectual property, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a Nov. 20 e-mail.
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Japan, China and South Korea the first week of December, the White House said earlier this month.
South Korea said part of China’s zone overlapped with its own air defense identification zone in waters off Jeju Island. Yoo Jeh Seung, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, summoned a Chinese military attache today and said his nation won’t abide by the zone.
The Chinese air force conducted its first patrol inside the zone Nov. 23, involving two reconnaissance planes with fighter jets in support. Japan dispatched fighter jets in response, its Defense Ministry said in a statement, having sent jets up 306 times in the year to March 2013 and 149 times in the April-September period.
China defense-related stocks rose, with AVIC Aircraft Co. gaining 2.4 percent in Shenzhen. Xi’an Aero-Engine Plc rising 1 percent in Shanghai.
Many countries, including Japan and the U.S., enforce ADIZs, airspace where the identification, location and control of planes are required in the interest of national security. More than 20 countries since the 1950s have set up such zones, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said yesterday in an English-language commentary.
Japan’s purchase of three of the disputed islands in September 2012 sparked violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, where car dealerships were attacked and vehicles burned. Last year, exports to China, then Japan’s largest trading partner, slumped 11 percent, according to Japanese government data.
Tensions escalated again in February when Abe denounced what he said was China’s use of fire-control radar twice on Japanese targets in the East China Sea. China’s Defense Ministry
denied such radar was used.
Last month, Abe said he wouldn’t permit China to use force to resolve territorial spats. Still, his scaling down of Japanese nationalist proposals has helped in part to foster a nascent recovery in business ties.
A delegation of 178 Japanese business executives visited China last week, while the Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century held an informal meeting last weekend in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.
Japan is preparing to release a new 10-year defense plan next month that’s expected to include increased security measures for the disputed islands. Japan will add high-speed warships to its fleet and at least double the number of refueling planes from the current four so aircraft can patrol for longer, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Nov. 22.
The level of U.S. response to China will be key, and whether it supports Japan by actions such as flying planes into the zone alongside aircraft from Tokyo, according to June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami in Florida.
“It’s time for Washington to make the next move,” Dreyer said. “But will it? If not, the pivot to Asia will have been proven what many have thought all along: A sham.”