Two unarmed American B-52 bombers flew through disputed areas of the East China Sea covered by China’s new air defense zone, a show of support for Japan as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to expand his nation’s military.
The U.S. planes spent less than an hour in the China-claimed zone as part of an annual training exercise, said a U.S. defense official who asked not to be named discussing the deployment. The Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement that the military kept the flights under surveillance and they traveled “along the eastern edge” of the zone.
The U.S. will continue to send flights through the area, said Francois Godement, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations. “What they are doing is dropping their business card.”
China’s creation of the zone on Nov. 23 may spur Abe to take a more hard-line stance as his government studies changing how it interprets the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to deploy the armed forces more freely. Abe is undertaking a review for a 10-year defense plan to be announced next month that may see Japan’s government add ballistic missile defense ships and refueling planes.
“It was a pretty ham-handed maneuver and because it was so ham-handed it is going to inflame passions in Tokyo, so it does play into Abe’s hands,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. “It will coalesce public opinion around his vision of foreign and defense policy,” Lewis said.
The Chinese move may also tighten the alliance between Japan and the U.S. The USS George Washington carrier strike group began annual exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force on Nov. 25 “to effectively and mutually respond to the defense of Japan or to a regional crisis,” according to a statement on the U.S. Navy’s website.
“Unilateral actions like those taken by China with their announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone undermine security and constitute an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Caroline Kennedy said in Tokyo in her first speech after becoming U.S. ambassador to Japan. “This only serves to increase tensions in the region.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera will later today discuss China’s zone by phone, Kyodo news agency reported. Vice President Joe Biden is due to visit Japan, China and South Korea next week.
The U.S. and Japan last month set out a road map for their alliance over the next 20 years, agreeing to revise the guidelines for defense cooperation for the first time since 1997. The U.S. is compelled to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a conflict.
Japan’s parliament today approved a bill that will set up a U.S.-style National Security Council to bring security policy more firmly under Abe’s control. The bill also aims to increase intelligence sharing with the U.S. and is backed by the Obama administration.
China’s announcement of the zone marked the latest escalation between the world’s second and third-largest economies over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. More than a year since Japan infuriated China by buying some of the islands, planes and ships from the two countries have frequently tailed each other in the area.
“All it does is send a message that China’s interest is throwing its weight around,” Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said. “China is acting the part of the regional bogeyman, which will put wind in the sails of Abe’s national security agenda.”
The Chinese embassy in Tokyo posted a message earlier this month asking all Chinese residents living in Japan to register so the embassy could contact Chinese nationals “in the event of a sudden emergency.”
Abe said he was “very concerned” by the zone, which overlaps with Japan’s own identification area in the East China Sea and where China said aircraft must now report flights and identify themselves. “It’s extremely dangerous,” he told parliament Nov. 25.
ANA Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines Co., the nation’s largest carriers, ran flights that landed today through the zone without notifying the China, the companies confirmed. Peach Aviation Ltd., a low-fare affiliate of ANA, also flew through the area without coordinating with the Chinese.
“Abe would probably like to go eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chinese, to try to back them down,” Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by phone. “He can’t do that right now. Japan’s just not militarily strong enough to do this alone.”
In October, an advisory panel called for a review of Japan’s self-imposed curbs on arms exports and said the country’s defense industry should become more competitive. It cited the rising influence of China, whose military spending increased 10.7 percent last year and 11 percent in 2011.
The Yomiuri newspaper reported Nov. 22 that Japan will add refueling planes and introduce high-speed warships to its fleet to boost the security of its remote islands. Japan plans to increase the number of Aegis ballistic missile defense ships to eight from six, the paper said.
Since Abe took office in December, the public has backed his approach of standing firm on the territorial dispute and tended to oppose his plan to permit Japan to defend allies.
A poll in the Asahi Shimbun published on Aug. 26 found 59 percent of respondents were against reinterpreting the constitution to allow collective self-defense. Abe’s approval rating stood at 63 percent in a poll by the Nikkei newspaper conducted Nov. 22-24.
“This will make Japanese public opinion vis a vis China more unfavorable, but it’s already very unfavorable,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
The new zone may pressure Abe to make good on a vow made last month not to allow “any change in the current situation by force.” Japan deployed fighter jets in late October after Chinese aircraft flew between southern Japanese islands without entering the country’s airspace.
“It forces Abe to take a firm response,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu. “He’s not going to back down on something like this.”
— With assistance by Andrew Davis, and Nick Wadhams