China Air Zone Seen Step to Expanding Access to West Pacific

China’s escalation in its challenge to Japan’s administration of islands near Taiwan reflects an effort to gain greater command of the air and seas in the western Pacific as it builds itself into a maritime power.

Establishing control over airspace covering uninhabited islands which China claims as its own would offer cover for warships heading east between Taiwan and Japan’s Okinawa Islands. The islands lie along one of two direct channels from China’s coast to the Pacific Ocean, to which the U.S. has unfettered approaches from its west coast as well as Alaska, Hawaii and other islands.

The air-zone declaration by President Xi Jinping’s government last month was the latest move to assert Chinese power over the region. Since 2010, China has increased patrols by marine surveillance and coastguard ships and sent Chinese aircraft into the disputed airspace above the islands.

The tactics are a prelude to building a blue-water navy capable of operating across deep oceans, said Scott Harold, a Hong Kong-based analyst with the RAND Corp., a policy institute based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“There are a lot of people in the People’s Liberation Army who believe it’s not in China’s interest to be quote-unquote cooped up in the First Island Chain and get out into open water,” he said. The First Island Chain is the name given by Chinese analysts for the series of archipelagos that stretch from Russia down past Japan and Taiwan and toward the coasts of the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Maritime Power

Since Xi came to power he has called for China to be a strong maritime force. In September last year, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, built on a Soviet hull, and has plans to build at least two more by 2025, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

China will have its first “credible sea-based nuclear deterrent” by the end of 2013 when the Julang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile is ready, the commission said in its annual report to Congress released last month.

Vice President Joseph Biden expressed U.S. opposition to the Chinese zone during a visit to Tokyo yesterday as he sought to ease concern of a rift with Japan over the response to China’s move. The disputed islands are known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.

Deeply Concerned

Biden meets Chinese officials in Beijing today to seek clarity about their intentions surrounding the zone even as he seeks to smooth ties. The air defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The U.S. is “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Biden said at a meeting yesterday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

China is seeking with the air zone to frustrate U.S. alliances in the region, said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “The Chinese are always trying to drive wedges between the United States and its principal allies in the region, that is South Korea and Japan,” he said.

The U.S. as a treaty ally of Japan is obliged to come to its defense, and the two countries recently set out a road map for defense cooperation over the next 20 years. The U.S. doesn’t take a stance on sovereignty over the East China Sea islands though it recognizes Japan’s administration of the chain.

No Dispute

Japan has thwarted China’s diplomatic push for the islands by refusing to acknowledge there’s even a dispute over their sovereignty. Part of China’s motivation for creating the air defense zone may be to force the issue by widening the problem from a bilateral dispute to one that draws in more countries.

“It is the Abe administration’s recalcitrant denial of the existence of a dispute that has prevented Beijing and Tokyo from conducting meaningful communication and crisis control,” the China Daily said today in an editorial posted on its website.

“China wants to challenge Japan’s de facto control of the area in the East China Sea, basically trying to change the status quo,” said Jian Zhang, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Canberra who specializes in China security issues.

Zone Rules

Military aircraft from the U.S. Japan and South Korea have ignored the zone’s rules since China’s Defense Ministry announced its creation on Nov. 23.

Commercial air carriers have been thrust into the dispute, leading to suggestions the U.S. was out of step with Japan in its response to the zone. Some U.S. airlines have notified China before flying into the zone as Japan tells its carriers not to supply such data. China has said it hopes civilian airlines will alert authorities when they fly through the area, though it’s backed down from demands for compliance made when the zone was announced.

China has been sloppy in rolling out the zone, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, who served as Asia director of the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton.

“They could have saved some grief by doing pre-briefs, they certainly could have had more clarity on the rules and they drew the map sloppily by overlapping South Korea’s own air defense identification zone,” said Lieberthal, now a senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Flight Time

Enforcement could stretch China’s military, and pilots would use up precious flight time deploying to intercept and patrol across a large territory instead of training for complex missions, he said.

“Some people have questions about China monitoring the air defense identification zone,” China Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said in a statement yesterday. “China’s military’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty and safety of its airspace is firm and hasn’t budged.”

Establishing the zone has led to concerns China will expand the policy to the South China Sea, resource-rich waters through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run and where the country has territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines. Three days after the zone was announced, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier departed for training in the South China Sea.

Even so, there’s no reason to think China’s move will lead to an escalation in military conflict, according to Thomas Fingar, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and State Department intelligence chief.

‘Last Thing’

“The last thing in the world China needs is instability in the region,” said Fingar, who is now a professor at Stanford University. “You ratchet up regional tensions and they’ll drive away investment” needed for China’s economic growth. “If they blow the economy, they’ve blown the game. The economic success is dependent on the global supply and production chains” not being disrupted.

On Nov. 25, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a briefing “China will announce when it will establish air defense zones in due course” in response to a question about whether it would extend the policy to the South China Sea.

“The objective is to lay down a marker, expand China’s zone of control,” David Arase, professor of International Politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, said by phone. “What it means is that the air force will routinely be patrolling this airspace and challenging anyone coming in.”

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, and Shai Oster

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