China's not-so-blue skies were the primary topic of conversation during Vice President Joe Biden's recent trip to East Asia. The issue, of course, was not climate change but Beijing's declaration last month of a new air defense identification zone that requires aircraft flying through the area to identify themselves and to file a flight plan. Although the declaration of such zones is the sovereign right of states, the international norm is that countries do not unilaterally declare zones that overlap with other countries' airspace and with disputed territory.
In this case, China did both. Half of its new zone duplicates Japan's over the disputed territory of a Japanese-owned island chain (which the Japanese call Senkakus and the Chinese call Diaoyu). The Chinese also declared control of airspace over a piece of South Korean-claimed territory that includes an oceanic research lab. Biden's uncharacteristically stern and sober press availability after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday gave a sense of how hard the United States and Japan have pushed back against China's attempt to expand its footprint in the region.
That expansion is a challenge to President Barack Obama's “pivot” to Asia, but it is not clear what the United States can do in response. Asking Beijing for prior consultation before it declares such zones and agreement on future rules of engagement in contested airspace is like telling a reckless driver to be more careful the next time he is on the road. It is hardly a full-throated rejection of China's unilateral action. Demanding a retraction of the zone, however, contravenes China's sovereign rights; that Biden's toughly worded demarches stopped short of calling for China's claims to be rescinded is tacit acknowledgment of this fact. There is no international regulatory body to submit grievances about such identification zones, yet these overlapping demarcations are certain to lead to accidents or miscalculation between Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and even U.S. aircraft at some point. Chinese actions reflect Beijing's view that the United States must accede to China's expanding sphere of influence in Asia. It is hard to see a “win” for Washington out of this.
But the Obama administration can still make lemonade out of this lemon. If China's long-term goal is to delegitimize U.S. leadership in Asia, unilateral actions such as declaring an air defense identification zone only undercut that effort and create greater receptivity among Asian nations for sustained U.S. leadership. To capitalize on this opportunity, the Obama administration must respond accordingly.
First, Washington should encourage a coordinated message with key allies affected by Chinese actions, in particular Japan and South Korea, whose relationship has deteriorated over the past year. The Koreans, for example, are likely to announce their own newly expanded air defense identification zone in response to China's play, and this is likely to also overlap with Japan's airspace. Washington must handle such actions in ways that minimize alliance friction and maximize unity.
While each ally has its own airspace grievance with Beijing, no one should cut a side deal to address its concerns at the expense of others. That sort of “divide and conquer” strategy plays right into Beijing's hands and may result in China wielding inordinate influence in the region.
Second, even as China makes new claims of airspace in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea, the United States should maintain, or even increase, the tempo of military exercises and operations in the region, including those with allies, to convey a clear and consistent message that America still underwrites the region's stability and security.
Finally, Washington could use the controversy over this air defense zone to press China into agreeing to some form of crisis-management mechanism among the four countries in Northeast Asia. Currently, there is no established apparatus to respond to the collision of planes or other accidents. The impending creation of National Security Council-type decision-making organs in China and Japan — such a body already exists in South Korea — could further facilitate a mechanism for multilateral crisis management.
The recent Chinese muscle-flexing makes the U.S. pivot only more welcome in Asia. China may win the battle over its right to an air defense identification zone, but if Washington responds shrewdly, Beijing stands to lose the longer-term contest for leadership.
Victor D. Cha is senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.