We were glad that two U.S. Air Force B-52s earlier this week flew over the East China Sea in air space that China over the weekend unilaterally claimed as part of its expanded “air defense identification zone.”
The B-52s, which were not armed and did not identify themselves to China, weren’t doing anything reckless. They were performing a long-scheduled training exercise in international air space. It is the Chinese who, amid a dispute with Japan over a handful of obscure, unocccupied islands in the East China Sea, are behaving recklessly. China’s weekend announcement included the demand that aircraft flying in that air space identify themselves, report their flight plan and heed China directives; failure to do so, Beijing made clear, could result in military action.
Tension between Japan and China over the contested islands has been ratcheted up in the last year. That’s largely because China, which wants to extend its authority in the Asia-Pacific region — and preempt the U.S. “pivot” to that area — has picked assorted fights with a number of its neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Japan.
The present dispute, however, could lead to a military confrontation and violence that would serve no one’s interests.
Japan, of course, immediately rejected China’s air space claim. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it “has no validity whatsoever for Japan” and demanded that China revoke it and respect international air space. For the record, he reiterated Japan’s sovereignty over the islands — islands that the Japanese call Senkaju and the Chinese call Diaoyu. China’s claim goes back several centuries.
No sooner had the United States voiced its concern about China’s claim to the air space than China lashed out at the United States for what it called “irresponsible actions” and “inappropriate remarks.”
Although the United States doesn’t have a formal position on which nation has the legitimate sovereignty claim over the islands, Washington leans toward Japan, recognizing the islands as under Japanese administration.
Though the most logical course would be for China and Japan to enter into negotiations over the islands, the immediate concern must be easing the tension. That can happen only if China rescinds its air defense identification zone, a claim that no other nation, with the possible exception of North Korea, will recognize.
Such unilateral actions only give China’s neighbors more reason to be wary of it.