State Department concerns appear to trump military ones, reports Asia Sentinel

Asian nations looking for US protection in the face of concerns about China’s hegemonic designs on east and Southeast Asia are left baffled by Washington’s response to China’s controversial declaration of an air defense zone covering most of the East China Sea.

The first US reaction, clearly driven by highest level military concerns, was to send military aircraft through the zone without notifying the Chinese authorities. Japan and Korea did likewise and Japan’s civilian aircraft similarly ignored this great leap forward in China’s de facto claims over airspace close to the territorial waters of Japan and South Korea.

A computer screens display a map showing the outline of China's air defense zone in the East China late last month. Pic: AP.

But since then the US, seemingly driven by a State Department that often appears to place short- term relations with China ahead of longer-term strategic questions, has adopted a somewhat ambiguous posture. The visit to the region by US Vice-President Joe Biden could have been used to condemn the Chinese action unequivocally and bolster Japanese and South Korean confidence in US determination to stand by them in rejecting Chinese presumptions.

As it happened, however, the US seemed set on avoiding provoking China into yet more aggressive claims – even though it was China’s announcement of the zone shortly before Biden’s visit, which was the immediate provocation.

Much of the western media also appeared to portray the air zone issue as simply an extension of China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands when even a glance at a map of the Chinese self-proclaimed zone shows it encompasses almost the whole airspace over the East China sea, not just the southwestern portion close to the Senkakus. Such misinterpretation must be music to China’s ears.

While in Beijing, Biden is reported to have told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US rejects the zone claim and looks to China to ease tensions by effectively not doing anything to enforce its claims. It could, for example, not do anything about plans, civilian or military, which fail to provide their flight plans to the Chinese authorities. Nonetheless, the claims are now on the record and having made them, President Xi may come under nationalist and populist pressure to try to enforce them.

The US position has clearly been weakened by its advising its own airlines to file their flight plans with China – unlike Japan. Not surprisingly, Japan has not been pleased with this failure to back its own position of declining to provide civilian flight information to the extent China demands. The US has explained its action by reference to the safety needs of civilian aircraft. However, that implies that China represents a risk to civilian aircraft which do not comply. Clearly China is not going to start shooting down commercial aircraft so the US response is in effect surrender to a theoretical threat. Stouter hearts would have called China’s bluff.

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