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2013.12.20

Japan must keep cool head over China's ADIZ

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on December 16, 2013

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

WASHINGTON--One week has passed since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden completed his visit to Japan, China and South Korea. Despite his original intention to use the trip to reaffirm the Obama administration's commitment to rebalancing U.S. policy regarding the Asia-Pacific region, working out a U.S. response to China's sudden declaration of a new air defense identification zone became the focus of his visit.

Japan appeared somewhat frustrated with the initial reaction by the United States to China's ADIZ declaration. Japanese leaders had hoped Tokyo and Washington would issue a joint statement protesting China's move. They had also hoped Biden would not just register a strong U.S. protest, but also demand that China withdraw its ADIZ declaration during his visit to Beijing.

Neither of these hopes was realized during Biden's visit. In fact, a divergence emerged in the U.S. and Japanese responses. The U.S. government allowed its civil air carriers to submit their flight plans to the Chinese government, in accordance with China's demand for aircraft passing through its ADIZ, while the Japanese government told its carriers not to. These uncoordinated responses by the two governments made many in Tokyo, including government officials, question how seriously the United States really takes China's unilateral ADIZ declaration. Reports in Japanese media have appeared to stress the second Obama administration's "pro-China" attitude, and have discussed the U.S. reaction to Chinese government measures and Biden's Asia trip in this context.

Still, the United States is clearly frustrated with China over its newly established ADIZ. Shortly after the ADIZ was declared, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it flew B-52s through the area, noting that it would not acknowledge the zone designation. The Pentagon also deployed its first P-8, a next-generation maritime surveillance aircraft, to Kadena in Okinawa Prefecture. While the latter move can be said to have been planned prior to these developments, such measures clearly show that the United States will not tolerate China's unilateral, coercive behavior.

It is also notable that U.S. President Barack Obama was apparently very upset that Chinese President Xi Jinping allowed the ADIZ announcement to go forward. Close observers of U.S.-China relations point out that when Obama met Xi in Sunnyland, Calif., in June, he stressed the importance of "no surprises" as a critical aspect of his future relationship with Xi. Also, China declared its ADIZ just two days after Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, discussed U.S. efforts to "operationalize new major power relations" with China. However, the unilateral move by China has aggravated U.S. concerns about China's intentions in the Asia-Pacific region.

China's declaration of its ADIZ, which was combined with statements that suggest the Chinese defense establishment may mistakenly believe ADIZs are territorial airspace, raises deep concerns that China, despite its intentions, may not honor long-held international norms, such as freedom of navigation and flight, and instead attempt to assert its intentions through force. The incident on Dec. 5, 2013, in which a Chinese Navy ship blocked a U.S. Navy ship in international waters along the South China Sea raises further concerns that China will resort to reckless behavior with its paramilitary and military forces. Such behavior represents a direct challenge to the international order in the Western Pacific, which the United States helped establish and has helped maintain since the end of World War II.

At the same time, Washington is well aware that once China made the ADIZ declaration, it would be nearly impossible to persuade Beijing to retract it. The United States has thus taken a two-pronged approach so far, seeking to minimize the risk of accidents and loss of life while communicating Washington's displeasure to China through government channels. This is why the United States has flown its bombers through China's ADIZ while at the same time deciding to allow U.S. civil airlines to submit their flight plans to the Chinese government.

This approach has certainly met with criticism in the policy community in Washington. Critics argue that the Obama administration should have more clearly communicated to Japan and South Korea the reasoning behind its decision to allow U.S. airlines to submit their flight plans to the Chinese government.

While Japan and South Korea welcome the Obama administration's quick decision to fly B-52s through airspace included in China's ADIZ, they also argue that such efforts should be ongoing so that Washington sends a clear message to Beijing that it will not accept the ADIZ designation. Still, the U.S. approach tries to strike a balance between demonstrating the official U.S. position through activities by the Pentagon, while minimizing the risk of an accident, as Washington continues to engage China in a bid to restrain further provocative behavior.

Given the United States' approach, how should Japan move forward? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has wisely kept his government's response resolute yet restrained, by continuing to keep diplomatic channels open with China at senior government levels. Japan should fight the temptation to be oversensitive to the U.S. stance. Rather, it should quietly focus on enhancing its defense readiness, by deepening its alliance with the United States and expanding its cooperative defense relations with other U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and, if possible, South Korea. At the same time, all security policy measures must be in harmony with Japan's interest in pursuing constructive economic relations with China. The Chinese government has already signaled it may be open to separating economic and security interests in its bilateral relationship with Japan. The Japanese government may want to think through how it can make such arrangements work in a way that benefits domestic economic interests without compromising on Beijing's reckless behavior in the area of security.

Japan is set to release its first-ever National Security Strategy next week, together with the National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. The National Security Council has already been launched, with the official start of operations set for next year. With this new interagency framework and medium-term strategic vision in place, Abe and his government must pursue a multifaceted yet integrated policy toward China.

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