China-Japan dispute over islands reaches sky high with US intervention

By Ameen Izzadeen
Are we on the threshold of a world war? The current war-like activities in the East China Sea involving three big powers – the United States, China and Japan – are probably dragging the world in that direction. But there is a silver lining to the dark war clouds — the decision makers of these countries are not insane, at least for now, to set off the world’s first nuclear war.
Instead of sorting out their dispute over some islands through diplomacy, the parties involved are flexing their military muscle. If war breaks out, it won’t be like the one-sided wars which we have seen in recent years or decades. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were a case of the world’s big bullies getting together and hammering a nation, which was militarily no match to its enemies’ collective fire power. But a war with China will involve not only the three big world powers, but also countries such as Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and other ASEAN nations. Such a conflict has the potential to expand to South Asia — with Sri Lanka also being caught in the crossfire.
The latest phase of the tensions in the East China Sea began when China last Friday declared an “air defence identification zone” over the disputed islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese Senkaku. The declaration took Japan, the US and the regional countries by surprise. But it was not unexpected. A war of words followed between the two Asian economic giants who claim sovereignty over the oil-and-gas rich islands.
The declaration calls upon aircraft flying through China’s newly declared air defence zone, an extension of China’s airspace, to provide flight plans and identification details and maintain contact with Chinese air defence authorities. However, the declaration took the territorial dispute to the skies because China’s newly declared air defence zone overlaps those of Japan and Taiwan, which also claims sovereignty over the islands.
The Chinese declaration came in response to a Japanese declaration early this year extending its air defence zone to cover the islands. Recently Japan also warned that it would shoot down unmanned drones it regarded as a threat to its airspace after Tokyo spotted an unidentified drone near the islands.
The dispute over the islands is long-running. Both China and Japan insist they have enough proof to claim ownership of the islands. Last year, a Japanese nationalist braved Chinese threats and visited the island to hoist the Japanese flag. Amidst growing hostilities between the two countries, Japan last year bought three of the islands from a Japanese citizen, who claimed he held the deeds.
In a dramatic escalation to the powderkeg situation, the United States on Tuesday flew two unarmed B-52 bombers over China’s new air defence zone without giving identification details to China or seeking its approval. China which has warned it will take “defensive emergency measures” if aircraft did not follow its instructions, exercised restraint and let the Americans violate its air defence zone, days after it was declared. It said it had monitored the American movements in its air defence zone.
By sending its warplanes over the disputed air defence zone, the US took a calculated risk. But whether the US will interpret China’s restraint as a lack of courage to confront the world’s number one military power or an exercise in prudence is hard to guess. But the situation remains volatile. Will China keep calm if Japanese aircraft fly over the disputed air defence zone?
Li Jie, a Chinese military expert, told the official People’s Daily website he saw the US flights through China’s air defence zone as an attempt by Washington to test China’s reaction and to show that the United States was still in charge in the Asia-Pacific region.
If flexing military muscle was the language the US spoke to China in response to Beijing’s new air defence zone, China is also resorting to the same language. The Chinese media reported on Tuesday that China’s air force would conduct a military drill in the new air defence zone next week while its navy would send its aircraft carrier and warships for a show-of-strength exercise in the South China Sea where two US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers have been anchored to facilitate aid operations in the typhoon hit Philippines. Adding to the tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnam and the Philippines, probably acting on the advice of the United States, have stepped up their claim for the Spratlys and other islands in South China Sea. They fear that China which also claims ownership of the islands may declare a similar air defence zone in the South China Sea.
Both Japan and the United States have said they do not recognise China’s new air defence zone. Japan’s civilian airlines also have said they will not comply with China’s instructions, while the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the US Air Force will simply ignore the Chinese rules in the zone. By sending the B-52 bombers which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs and cruise missiles, the US proved that it meant business.
In terms of a post-Word War II defence pact, the United States is bound to defend Japan in case of an outside aggression. A similar agreement commits the United States to defend Taiwan, the breakaway Chinese territory.
Heightening the tensions are the high-pitch nationalist slogans in Japan and China. Drowned in the sea of nationalism is the call for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over the dispute islands which are inhabited by freely roaming goats which have no knowledge of what kinds of dangerous weapons can fall into their homeland if a war erupts. China’s new President Xi Jinping and Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are staunch nationalists. Some believe that President Xi is stirring nationalistic sentiments to divert the people’s attention from burning socio-economic and political issues such as separatism in the Xinjiang province, bomb attacks in Beijing and the widening income gap between the rich and the poor. Abe on the other hand also owes his political success to his nationalistic policies, which include his determination to ensure Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed islands.
The latest escalation also comes amidst moves by the United States to shift its defence priorities to Asia – more precisely to China’s neighbourhood. China has been well and truly surrounded by overtly friendly but inwardly hostile pro-American nations. Except for North Korea, a pro-Beijing, nuclear-armed maverick state, almost all the countries to China’s east, west and the south have a territorial dispute with the Communist nation, which is today the world’s number two economic power and is likely to overtake the US to become the number one economic power in a decade or so.
Next week, US Vice President Joe Biden will visit the region to reassure key US allies. In China, he will confront the Chinese leadership about the controversial declaration.
President Barack Obama will also undertake a tour to the region in April to promote his Pivot to Asia doctrine. Last week, Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in announcing Obama’s visit, underlined the importance the administration was giving to Asia – read China’s neighbourhood. She said, “Rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific remains a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy… No matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region.”
One wonders whether the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by December next year, its reluctance to get involved in any new confrontation in the Middle East and its moves to patch up with Iran and solve the Palestinian problem are aimed at diverting much of its military strength to Asia in a bid to check China.
Emboldened by such reassuring US moves, already South Korea has said it will not abide by China’s new air defence zone instructions while Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge her country’s protest and to tell him that Australia opposed “any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.” Australia maintains close defence ties with the US. It has allowed Washington to maintain a military base in Darwin which overlooks the vast sea area south and east of China.
But China appears to be preparing for any eventuality – ready to respond to Washington’s Pivot-to-Asia policy. China uses its trillion dollar trade surplus to control the world economy and build up its military power. Late last month, the Chinese navy conducted a massive military exercise covering all the disputed islands — with senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers boasting that their navy had “dismembered” the so-called first island chain.
(This column first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Nov. 29, 2012)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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