Newspaper barbs and US bombers flying after China's air defence move

  • 26 November 2013
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Japanese Navy ships take part in an October 14, 2012, military review.

As US bombers fly into China's recently declared air defence zone over the East China Sea, tensions are spilling onto editorial pages in Japan, China and the United States.

The East China Sea is "the most dangerous geostrategic fault line in the world", writes the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. "One misjudgement by either side... could change our world entirely. If you are not concerned, perhaps you should be."

China's air defence identification zone (ADIZ) creates an overlapping area over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan. As the parties test each other's resolve, a rapidly escalating war of words is breaking out to pre-emptively assign blame if the military sabre-rattling ends in actual conflict.

"If Japan really dares to get tough and flagrantly creates 'unexpected events' targeting aircraft that are carrying out missions in China's air-defence identification zone, the Sino-Japanese confrontation can be entirely expected to escalate directly into friction or even conflict in the skies," write the editors of China's Global Times.

Japan's Asahi Shimbun counters that China's move is "tantamount to a Chinese declaration that the country is willing to take military action against Japanese aircraft over the Senkaku Islands... China must refrain from any dangerous act of testing the Japan-US security alliance."

Chinese and Japanese papers point to the larger geopolitical issues at stake in this showdown, both for the competing claims over the barren islands within the air zones and for China's status as a growing world power.

"The Chinese government led by President Xi [Jinping] has been absorbed in the 'Chinese Dream' of surpassing the United States in all aspects," write the editors of the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun. "However, China has been enjoying rapid economic growth thanks to peace and order in Asia. China's provocative acts that threaten the region's peace and order could give the international community the impression that China is dreaming of another violent cultural revolution."

China's People's Daily shows that two can play the bring-up-the-past game:

Currently, on the Diaoyu Islands issue, the Japanese government is continuing to ignore China's position and deny the existence of any dispute. On historical issues, Japan seeks to detoxify its aggression and avoid its responsibilities; on its attitude towards China it plays up the "China threat" and tries to manipulate an "encirclement of China".

Meanwhile in the US, commentators are wondering what the latest flexing of muscles in East Asia means for regional stability and US Pacific strategy.

"China's announcement runs jarringly counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions that erupted last summer over the Senkaku Islands," writes Sheila A Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Keeping militaries apart and alert to the consequences of miscalculation is the biggest challenge for US, Japanese and Chinese policymakers. This new ADIZ announcement only enhances risk and deepens suspicions."

She continues:

Popular sentiment in Japan and China has become highly sensitive to the island dispute, and both governments are hard-pressed to find a way of managing their differences. This latest announcement by Beijing only exacerbates the risks that the growing interactions of Chinese and Japanese forces in and around the Senkaku Islands will lead to conflict.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, director of Asia-Pacific programmes at the US Institute of Peace, writes that the latest events are a sign that Mr Xi is pushing a bolder "great power" foreign policy around the world: "China's recent rhetoric and actions show a move from a defensive, reactive and image-conscious policy to a proactive approach designed to further China's vital interests."

The China Daily writes that Japanese and US "hysteria" is based on a "misreading" of Chinese intentions:

The Japanese and US complaints that the ADIZ is a "unilateral" move that changes "the status quo" are inherently false. The US did not consult others when it set up and redrew its ADIZs. Japan never got the nod from China when it expanded its ADIZ, which overlaps Chinese territories and exclusive economic zone. Under what obligation is China supposed to seek Japanese and US consent in a matter of self-defence?

Alexander Neill of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) contends that this is more than just a routine exercise of Chinese sovereignty, however.

"The ADIZ declaration confirms that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are a 'core concern' for China; it places the archipelago in the same category as the South China Sea and Taiwan," he writes. "The US response may be to up the tempo of its own military drills planned for the area, forcing the PLA [People's Liberation Army] into a defensive response, testing both Xi Jinping's resolve and his chain of command."

Today's B-52 flights indicate that this indeed may be the US strategy.