China’s unilateral decision to create an Air Identification Zone over disputed territory is bringing the likelihood of direct confrontation among the leading powers in the West Pacific more likely. The overlap of claims, which cover the Senkaku Islands, has led to an escalation of military deployment involving China, Japan, South Korea and American forces.

DIRECT confrontation between the major powers in the West Pacific could follow China’s establishment of an air identification zone around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Air Identification Zones (AIZ) are routine and create procedures for aircraft entering the airspace of a defined geographic area relating to a country’s sovereignty. More than 20 countries are known to have established AIZs, which were first introduced in North America in 1950.

China’s new AIZ, introduced on November 23, 2013, is different. It aims to change the rules for aircraft traffic access and therefore the sovereignty rights in a contested area, and it is administered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

China's claimed AIZ adds a dimension to what so far was a maritime conflict, albeit the legal implications are less consequential than the Law of the Sea. China is basing its case on historical, not legal claims. The defined zone overlaps other AIZs established by South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Valuable islands

The United States is committed to secure Japanese rights on the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, through its defence treaty with Japan.

The resulting polygon of overlapping AIZs could still allow for coordinated procedures, but in this case it is intended to change the status quo.

The quarrel between a rising China and a resurging Japan over these uninhabited, though valuable, islands has become a focal point in a competition with Pacific and global implications. Waters around the islands provide rich fishing grounds, important shipping routes and have potential oil and gas reserves.

Both sides were posturing without real political consequences although there were widespread riots in Chinese cities following Japan’s nationalisation of the islands in September 2012.

But China’s latest move has set off a process of escalation which is intended to overcome the stalemate and to force the other side to back down.

Military stand-off

China announced it was sending drones - unmanned aerial vehicles - into the contested area in October and Japan threatened to shoot them down. China’s AIZ was a calculated response driven by its geopolitical thrust.

China sent its carrier battle group into the Taiwan Strait when Japan, backed by the US, South Korea and others, protested at China’s creation of the AIZ. China’s naval group is small and highly vulnerable, but it has moved a symbolic and highly visible force into a contested area, claiming it is on a training operation.

China also sent two reconnaissance aircraft into the Senkaku area to demonstrate its administrative authority. Japan retaliated by sending two Japanese F-15s to patrol the airspace.

Three US aircraft carrier groups have now begun operating within reach of the Senkaku Islands - in waters where Chinese and Japanese patrol boats have been engaged in an increasingly risky stand-off.

Ignoring zone

All this could still be seen as a ‘coincidence’ and has been played down by Japan.

But two allegedly unarmed American B-52 bombers tested China’s AIZ in a one-hour operation which could be seen as open defiance to dissuade China from further escalation. Arguably, they were also meant to dissuade Japan from escalating matters on its own.

This was followed by patrols of US reconnaissance planes and Japanese and South Korean military flights without providing notification to the Chinese authorities before entering the AIZ.

Japanese airlines have been told by the government not to notify the Chinese authorities when commercial aircraft fly through China's new AIZ.

So what are the likely consequences of this rising tension? Japan has referred to a ‘grey zone’ between war and posturing. China has said that possible Japanese attacks on Chinese patrol aircraft or drones would be an ‘act of war’. The Americans see their B-52 flights as a ‘routine operation’.

US reassurance

All sides have subsequently chosen to play matters down and lower the temperature. China has reduced its earlier warnings insisting on 'observation' of 'intruding' aircraft. This leaves issues to instant decisions on whether the flight is hostile - which could be a response to the US action or be a display of a more cautious foreign policy line. But even this is accompanied by a warning from General Qiao Liang, a notorious hardliner, warning that China would be more assertive once it has achieved the power to sustain it.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has responded calmly by announcing the expansion of air surveillance in the East China Sea and greater use of the Global Hawk drones. The US is providing Japan with reassurance in order to persuade the Japanese not to respond more forcefully and to reinforce America's defence commitment.

This prepares the ground for US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan in early December which is intended to find a platform for a broadening approach.

These developments are happening in the context of rising new and assertive nationalism in both China and Japan. This can get out of control, although neither is looking for war when facing their economic priorities.

Historic comparison

America’s assertiveness will also reassure Pacific nations and cool Chinese ambitions. But the issue will not go away and may tie the US more closely into a contested geographic framework than it would like.

Four Air Identification Zones and America’s extended deterrence overlap in this delicate polygon around the Senkaku Islands. This may be the scene for evolving US-Chinese competition which can perhaps be compared with critical stand-offs during the central European military confrontation with Russia during the Cold War (1947-1991).

Historical analogies are easily misleading. Christopher Clark, author of the highly acclaimed book on the outbreak of World War One (1914-1918), The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, has compared the current situation in the Asia-Pacific with the European scene preceding the Sarajevo assassination in 1914: No party wanted a major war but all were preparing for it, and it took one single event to initiate that European catastrophe.

Whether this analogy will hold, or new ways of dissuasion will work along with continuing globalisation, will be a strategic issue of global proportions.

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