Vice President Joe Biden will press Chinese leaders on their intentions in creating a new air-defense zone, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured Japan of U.S. support and continued military operations in the region.
Biden will use meetings with leaders in Beijing next week partly to express U.S. concern about China’s behavior toward its neighbors and seek an explanation of the air zone it claimed over disputed areas of the East China Sea, according to an administration official who briefed reporters today on condition of anonymity to discuss the vice president’s plans.
China’s establishment of an air zone that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China “is a potentially destabilizing unilateral action designed to change the status quo in the region, and raises the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation,” Hagel said in a call today to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, according to an e-mailed statement by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog.
The U.S. sent two unarmed B-52 bombers through the disputed zone this week without the advance notice that China has demanded and without incident. South Korea’s military sent a plane through the area yesterday on a regular patrol flight, according to NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization, which cited military sources it didn’t name.
ANA Holdings Inc. and Japan Airlines Co., Japan’s largest carriers, ran flights that landed today through the zone without advance notice, the companies said. Peach Aviation Ltd., a low-fare affiliate of ANA, also flew through the area without coordinating with the Chinese.
The risks of in-air confrontations are illustrated by a 2001 incident when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy plane monitoring Chinese communications over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, while the U.S plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island. China held its crew of 24 for 11 days before freeing them after the U.S. expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot.
Biden’s planned trip to China, Japan and South Korea on a visit to promote trade and other joint interests risks being overshadowed by the dispute over the air zone declared by China on Nov. 23. The official who briefed reporters declined to say whether Biden would call on China to eliminate the zone, saying any remedial actions would be discussed through private diplomatic channels.
The U.S. bombers 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 its military kept the flights under surveillance and they traveled “along the eastern edge” of the zone.
Predicting that the U.S. will continue to send flights through the area, Francois Godement, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations, said, “What they are doing is dropping their business card.”
While the Pentagon isn’t informing the Chinese when it sends planes through the air zone, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters today that U.S. airlines “are being advised to take all steps they consider necessary to operate safely in the East China Sea region.”
United Continental Holdings Inc., with the most service to China among U.S. carriers, will continue its usual policy of sharing flight data with China, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based airline.
“We are filing our flight plans with China as we normally do,” she said in an e-mail today.
In the call today, Hagel commended Japan “for exercising appropriate restraint” in response to China’s actions, according to the statement. The defense secretary “reaffirmed longstanding U.S. policy” that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty applies to the disputed islands “and pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents.”
China is “resolute in its will and resolve” to defend its sovereignty over the islands, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing on Nov. 25. The current situation is “totally caused” by Japan’s “erroneous actions,” Qin said.
China’s creation of the zone may spur Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to take a more hard-line stance as his government studies changing how it interprets the pacifist constitution imposed by the U.S. after World War II 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.
China’s proclamation of the defense zone 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 also may 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.”
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.
China’s announcement 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 from a private owner, planes and ships from the two countries have frequently tailed each other in the area.
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.
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.