Joe Biden’s trip to northeast Asia has left some in Japan feeling abandoned. By not demanding that China roll back its new “air-defense identification zone,” the U.S. vice president tacitly accepted the controversial zone as a fait accompli.
Yet a tougher stance would have led nowhere. China is not about to retract the zone under U.S. pressure. To lay down that red line would only keep emotions in the region at fever pitch. Leaders should instead look to lower tensions and begin rational discussions.
It’s important to remember that China’s declaration remains, for the moment, something of a symbolic gesture. While the rules governing such zones are vague, nothing about them suggests that they confer sovereignty; the Chinese themselves have more or less acknowledged that. It’s not even clear that China yet has the military capacity to police its entire zone, which extends more than 200 miles from the mainland. That some civilian airlines -- including U.S. airlines -- are acceding to Chinese demands to provide their flight plans through the area means nothing legally.
As a matter of fact, that civilian traffic presents something of an opportunity: giving the countries involved something specific to talk about, under the auspices of organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization. Every day, more than 1,000 flights traverse China’s declared zone -- about half of them by Japanese and South Korean airlines (which have refused to identify their routes to Beijing). Neither China nor Japan nor South Korea has the slightest interest in seeing this traffic disrupted: All have export economies, critically dependent on the free flow of goods and people.
In a bid to pressure China, Japan has already raised safety concerns with the ICAO about overlapping air-defense identification zones. All countries involved would do better to use the organization as an umbrella under which to begin talks on procedures and norms to be followed in the contested airspace. This would put the onus on China to demonstrate that its defense zone will not impede civilian air travel any more than other such zones do around the world.
Progress in such a forum would lay the groundwork for more difficult talks about codes of behavior for military and surveillance flights. Speaking to Bloomberg News on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called again for a summit with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Beijing again rejected the call, saying that Japan needed first to “look at history and pursue the same direction as China.”
Talks are more likely to succeed if they originate further down the food chain. Before the islands dispute flared up in September 2012, when the Japanese government purchased them from a private owner, Tokyo and Beijing had begun to make progress on several maritime confidence-building and communication measures. It’s not inconceivable that these discussions could be revived, particularly now that the risk of a miscalculation has escalated. It would help if rhetoric over the new zone was dialed down so that merely sitting down to talk didn’t look to any side like capitulation.
Those who argue instead for a harder line against Beijing figure that China is playing a long game to expand its claims incrementally and nudge the U.S. away from its shores. They may be right about this.
Yet drawing a line in the sand over the new air-defense identification zone wouldn’t change things. China’s regional ambitions -- and the military might to back them up -- will grow as long as its economy does. This is a moment not to make empty demands, but to negotiate transparent norms of behavior that at least offer a chance of preventing conflict in the months and years ahead.
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