China Air-Zone Move Expands Field of Islands Spat With Japan

China’s declared intent to protect an air zone encompassing islands that are disputed with Japan escalated tensions between Asia’s largest economies, risking damage to a resurgence in trade.

China announced an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea effective Nov. 23 and said its military will take “defensive emergency measures” if aircraft enter the area without reporting flight plans or identifying themselves. Japan lodged a complaint as the U.S. and South Korea expressed concern about China’s actions.

The move further expands to the skies a dispute that has often played out at sea, including confrontations that have seen Chinese vessels accused of targeting Japan’s forces with weapons-guiding radar systems. Those frictions 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, whose government is set to unveil its first postwar national security strategy next month.

China’s zone is symbolic payback for Japan’s move last September to buy some of the islands, 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.”

Protesting Protests

China protested to both Japan and the U.S. about their reaction to the new air defense zone.

The Foreign Affairs office of the Chinese Defense Ministry complained to the U.S. embassy’s military attache yesterday over the U.S.’s “erroneous remarks” on the zone, according to a statement on the Ministry’s website today.

China has engaged in “profoundly dangerous acts that unilaterally change the status quo,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement late yesterday.

“Japan is working and consulting closely with its ally, the United States, and will coordinate with other relevant countries and partners which have common interests in the stability and safety of the region,” Kishida said.

While the U.S. doesn’t take sides in the territorial dispute, it recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands. The U.S. is a treaty ally of Japan and in October the two set a road map for defense cooperation over the next 20 years.

Escalatory Action

“Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Nov. 23. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement it wouldn’t change how America conducts military operations in the region.

“We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” Hagel said in the statement. “This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

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. Korea’s Ministry of National Defense will raise the matter further with China, it said in a statement.

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 over a territorial spat with countries in the South China Sea.

‘Necessary Measure’

China didn’t specify what measures it might take if others don’t cooperate with its rules. The announcement of the zone follows a decision by Communist Party leaders earlier 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.

A map and details of the zone’s coordinates were posted on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website. “This is a necessary measure taken by China in exercising its self-defense right,” ministry spokesman Yang Yajun said in a separate also on the site. “It is not directed against any specific country or target.”

Flight Plans

The rules include reporting flight plans to China’s Foreign Ministry or civil aviation authorities and providing radio and logo identification of aircraft, according to the Ministry. The 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 as much as 5.7 percent in morning trading in Shenzhen. Xi’an Aero-Engine increased as much as 4.7 percent in Shanghai.

Many countries, including Japan and the U.S., enforce ADIZs, airspace where the identification, location and control of aircraft are required in the interest of national security. More than 20 countries since the 1950s have set up such zones, Xinhua said yesterday in an English-language commentary.

Japan’s purchase of three of the disputed islands from a private owner 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.

Japanese Targets

Tensions escalated again in February when Abe denounced what he said was China’s use of fire-control radar in January twice on Japanese targets in the East China Sea. China’s Ministry of Defense denied such radar was used.

Earlier this month, a retired Chinese military commander warned that any attack by Japan on China’s drones would represent the “first shot” of a war. Abe has approved a plan to shoot down any drones that enter Japan’s airspace, Kyodo said last month. China successfully conducted a test flight of its first stealth drone, the Beijing Times reported Nov. 22.

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.

Honda Sales

Honda Motor Co.’s sales in China more than tripled in October from the year before, while Chinese visitors to Japan rose for the first time in a year in September. 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 also preparing to release a new 10-year defense plan next month that is 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.”