Renewed tensions between China and Japan have taken centre stage on United States Vice President Joe Biden’s three-leg tour to Asia, with the American leader on Tuesday stressing the need for a regional “crisis management mechanism” as he held talks in Tokyo.
Mr. Biden, in Japan on the first stop of his tour, said he would, this week, directly raise American concerns with Beijing, over the latter's move to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed parts of the East China Sea. The U.S. Vice President will arrive in Beijing on Wednesday and hold talks with the Chinese leadership, before travelling to South Korea later in the week.
While the White House said in a statement the visit was aimed at reaffirming the U.S. as a Pacific power, promoting trade, and underscoring its commitment to "rebalancing" its foreign policy towards Asia, last week's decision by China is set to dominate the trip's agenda.
In Tokyo, Mr. Biden said on Tuesday China’s move had “raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation”, speaking to reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“This underscores the need for crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication between China and Japan to reduce the risk of escalation,” he said, adding that he would directly raise the issue during his visit to Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday.
China, on November 23, announced the setting up of its first ADIZ, reasoning that other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, had already set up such zones in the region. The ADIZ is not a territorial claim, but a defined area in international airspace, extending beyond a country’s airspace, within which it tracks and identifies aircraft heading into its territory.
However, ambiguity about how China planned to administer its ADIZ, which also includes islands at the centre of a dispute with Japan and a reef under South Korean control, last week fuelled tensions, with Beijing saying it would launch unspecified "emergency defence responses" to any aircraft that entered the zone without notifying Chinese authorities.
In recent days, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all made clear they will not follow China’s rules, and have deployed military aircraft to carry out patrols through the Chinese ADIZ. China said it had responded by "identifying the aircraft", and had also dispatched fighter jets to tail 12 American and Japanese aircraft.
The Chinese Defence Ministry on Tuesday released a statement rebutting the criticism from several countries blaming Beijing for fanning regional tensions.
“We have noticed that a very few countries have said that China’s setting up of the East China Sea ADIZ has unilaterally altered the East China Sea’s status quo, and escalated regional tension,” the statement from spokesperson Geng Yansheng said.
Referring to Japan establishing its own ADIZ “as early as 1969” and expanding “its scope many times to only 130 km toward our coastline from its west end, which covers most of the airspace of the East China Sea”, he said Tokyo was “not qualified at all to make irresponsible remarks".
The view among many diplomats in Beijing is that even if the Chinese government was well within its rights to set up an ADIZ – almost all of its neighbours have already done so – it would have been better served by consulting and informing its neighbours before hand.
The lack of detail in what “emergency” defence responses might be launched by the Chinese air force – whether such moves would only include identification or, on the other hand, involve scrambling of jets – was also seen as provoking concerns.
The Defence Ministry statement appeared to try and address those anxieties, even if it had perhaps come one week too late. It said, “generally, supervision and control are exercised through reported flight plans and radar response and identification”, adding that “fighter planes are unnecessary when an entering aircraft is found to pose no threat to us”. “It is well-known that civil flights pose no threat in most circumstances,” the statement added.
Despite stirring tensions in the short-term, analysts here see the ADIZ move as aimed at a longer-term objective: questioning Japan’s control over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, currently administered by Tokyo, and boosting Chinese capabilities to patrol in the waters and skies surrounding the islands.
While the Defence Ministry said the zone was not “aimed at any specific country”, it did, however, blame Japan for "making trouble” over the islands, starting with announcing its “purchase” of the islands in September 2012 from a private owner and “frequently sending vessels and planes to disturb Chinese ships and planes in normal exercises or training”.
“Japan’s actions have seriously harmed China’s legitimate rights and security interests,” the statement said. “China has to take necessary reactions”.