Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water—or, in the case of the East China Sea, fly over the water—a new conflict is brewing in Asia that pits the United States against China. Vice President Joe Biden is packing his bags for a visit to the region, including China and Japan, but if he thought he’d be able to talk up the Transpacific Partnership, he’d better think again.
If this is part of the “pivot” to Asia, President Obama ought to pivot right back to the Middle East, where he is having some diplomatic successes. So far, in regard to the East China Sea dispute, U.S. policy is all about shows of force.
The problem started a few days ago, on November 23, when China’s Ministry of Defense announced the definition of what it calls an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over stretches of the sea between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It is not an exclusion zone or a no-fly zone, but the Chinese say that it requires aircraft passing through the area to identify themselves:
The ministry also issued the Aircraft Identification Rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which states aircraft flying in the zone must abide by these rules and provide identification, including flight plans, radio contact, transponders and logos.
Underscoring that it means business, according to Xinhua the Defense Ministry added:
Aircraft flying in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone should follow the instructions of the administrative organ of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone or the unit authorized by the organ. China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.
So, of course, the United States promptly said: “No way.” The Pentagon sent pair of B-52 bombers cruising through the new ADIZ, without identifying themselves. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the flights were routine. But they were not routine at all, and China reacted as expected, though rather quietly. “We will make corresponding responses according to different situations and how big the threat is,” a Chinese defense official told the New York Times.
The Chinese action, which comes in the midst of a dispute between China and Japan over some islands in the East China Sea—over which Beijing and Tokyo have been rattling sabers lately—is small potatoes, but both the United States and Japan seem to be treating like it were a mini-crisis. Meanwhile, the right wing in the United States, the neoconservatives and hawks, are beating the war drums. One of the interchangeable scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, which drummed up the war in Iraq in 2003, Michael Auslin, wrote in Politico: