November 27, 2013
After Challenges, China Appears to Backpedal on Air Zone
By JANE PERLEZ
BEIJING — China has permitted rare street protests and sent armadas of fishing boats to show its growing national interest in a small string of islands in the East China Sea. Earlier this year, the Chinese military locked its radar on a Japanese navy vessel.
Each step seemed like a measured escalation in the long-running territorial dispute, intended to press Japan to negotiate over jurisdiction of the islands. But they also seemed calibrated to avoid a sharp international backlash — or to raise expectations too high at home.
But by imposing a new air defense zone over the islands last weekend, Beijing may have miscalculated. It provoked a quick, pointed challenge from the United States, set off alarm bells among Asian neighbors and created a frenzy of nationalist expression inside China on hopes that the new leadership team in Beijing would push for a decisive resolution of the longstanding dispute.
On Wednesday, after the Pentagon sent two B-52 bombers defiantly cruising around China’s new air defense zone for more than two hours, Beijing appeared to backpedal. The overflights went unchallenged, and some civilian airlines ignored China’s new assertion of air rights.
“We will make corresponding responses according to different situations and how big the threat is,” the spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, said when asked about China’s lack of enforcement against the American planes.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has suggested that it intends to make a more robust defense of its national interests, including in maritime disputes, to match its rising economic and military power. But even some Chinese analysts say they wonder if the new leadership team fully anticipated the response to the latest assertion of rights — or had in mind a clear Plan B if it met with strong resistance.
“I believe Xi Jinping and his associates must have predicted the substance of this reaction; whether they underestimated the details of the reaction, I’m not sure,” said Shi Yinhong, an occasional adviser to the government and a professor of international relations at Renmin University.
China does appear determined to escalate the issue of the uninhabited islands, known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, as a way of forcing the Japanese to negotiate and give up control of territory that has symbolic and strategic value for both countries. In the long term, China has not tried to disguise its goal of weakening the alliance between the United States and Japan and supplanting the United States as the dominant naval power in the Western Pacific.
Beijing is especially frustrated that its previous, more cautious steps to convince Japan of the seriousness of its claim to the islands have not prompted Japan, which administers them, to negotiate in earnest.
“Japan always has the backing of the United States and shows unbelievable arrogance to the Chinese proposal to have talks on a bilateral basis,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Beijing University and one of China’s more moderate voices on Japan. “Japan’s arrogance is unacceptable.”
But if China has been trying to drive a wedge between Washington and the Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, their strategy seems to have backfired, at least for now.
The United States had for months seemed reluctant to get involved or take sides in a dispute that carries so much emotional weight for China. American officials complained that some Japanese leaders had made nationalist gestures that antagonized China, worsening the tensions. And the Obama administration dodged requests by Japanese leaders to take a clearer stance in their favor.
That hesitation seems to have largely vanished since China pronounced it was expanding its hold on the region’s airspace.
With the flyover by the B-52s, the United States has shown it is more willing to work with Japan in opposing China’s efforts to unilaterally force a change in the status quo, even if the United States still takes a neutral stance in the islands dispute itself. Hours after China declared its new air zone, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reaffirmed that the United States would stand by its security treaty obligations to aid Japan if it was attacked.
Since Saturday, Japanese leaders have publicly emphasized the close coordination with Washington — largely to reassure their own population, which has felt growing anxiety over China’s increasingly assertive stance.
On Wednesday in Tokyo, the defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, pledged in a phone call with Mr. Hagel to work closely with the United States military by sharing information and coordinating in the surveillance of Chinese activities in the East China Sea, Japan’s Defense Ministry said.
The new United States ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, said in her first speech since assuming her post, broadcast around the world on CNN, that China’s creation of the air defense zone “only serves to increase tensions in the region.”
The Chinese action also stirred the first official negative comments about China in South Korea since President Park Geun-hye took office this year and forged a closer relationship with Beijing. The coordinates of the air defense zone announced by China overlap with South Korea’s own air defense zone in some places and appear created to give China an edge in a separate maritime territorial dispute with South Korea.
“We see competition and conflict in the region deepening,” South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, said Wednesday. “Things can take a dramatic turn for the worse if territorial conflicts and historical issues are merged with nationalism.”
The announcement of the air defense zone may also have created problems at home for the leadership in China, where there are expectations among an increasingly nationalist population that the country can live up to its promise of standing up to Japan.
On Chinese social media, a barrage of commentary congratulated the government on the new air defense zone and warned that Beijing should make good on threats by the Defense Ministry that aircraft give notification or face military action.
“If the Chinese military doesn’t do anything about aircraft that don’t obey the commands to identify themselves in the zone, it will face international ridicule,” wrote Ni Fangliu, a historian and an investigative journalist, on his microblog, which has more than two million followers.
The Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of China’s military, said in a commentary published before the Chinese government acknowledged the B-52 flights that without strong enforcement, the zone would be just “armchair strategy.”
Despite the risks, Mr. Shi, the government adviser, said that proclaiming the air defense zone was important because it represented China’s first effort to expand its strategic space beyond offshore waters since the establishment of Communist China in 1949.
The response by the United States, he said, amounted to “a negative development for a strong great-power relationship” that China sought between the United States and China, but he added that the Chinese president was patient and strategic.
Martin Fackler contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea.