High-altitude brinkmanship

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It’s a dangerous game of brinkmanship China and Japan are playing over a group of small islands in the East China Sea.

Beijing and Tokyo have long been contesting ownership of the cluster of five islets that is known as Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese. At present Tokyo has the upper hand, having administrative control of three of the islets, but that hasn’t stopped Beijing from aggressively pursuing its claim.

Tensions between the two Asian superpowers over Diaoyu/Senkaku have ebbed and flowed through the years but never escalated to the point of causing a serious tear in their relations. But since last week a string of fast-breaking developments is ringing alarm bells all over the region and in Washington.

Seemingly out of the blue, China announced it was establishing an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. All aircraft entering the ADIZ are required to clearly identify themselves and maintain radio contact with Chinese authorities. Failure to do so risks an unfortunate encounter with Chinese jet fighters.


There’s a problem: The Chinese ADIZ not only overlaps with Japan’s own air defense zone, but it also covers the disputed islets.

The Japanese response was swift. It scrambled two of its fighter jets to chase away two Chinese reconnaissance planes that entered Japan’s own ADIZ and approached Diaoyu-Senkaku. The cat-and-mouse game in the sky ended without incident, but it had warning signs flashing.

The row has pulled in the US, who is Japan’s closest ally, and who is establishing a bigger naval presence in the Pacific.

The US sent two of its aging B-52s bombers into the Chinese air defense zone, daring Beijing to react. The B-52s were left alone, although Chinese authorities said later it “monitored” the US planes.

Not soon after it was a South Korean military plane’s turn to defy the Chinese ADIZ. Again Beijing thought it best not to intercept.

Rubbing salt on China’s wounds, several airlines declared they will fly through the disputed air space and ignore the restrictions.

China’s restrained response to the flouting of its rules leaves many wondering if it bit off more than it could chew. Was setting up the air defense zone just a show of bravado? Did Beijing really think it could enforce the restrictions?

Stung perhaps by the defiance of Japan and its allies, China announced that it was deploying its lone aircraft carrier to the East China Sea.

The Chinese show of force could only trigger a dangerous facedown in the already volatile area. The US certainly is not backing down, committed as it is to its Pacific pivot strategy. Japan is not expected to soften its stance, either.

Establishing the ADIZ was far from an off-the-cuff decision by Beijing. It fits snugly into China’s grand plan to dominate the region economically and militarily.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario believes China also wants to control air space over contested areas of the South China Sea.

“It transforms an entire air zone into China’s domestic air space. And that is an infringement, and compromises the safety of civil aviation,” del Rosario said.

The Philippines is already in the middle of a territorial row with China. It cannot afford to be an unwilling player in a game of brinkmanship that could escalate into a shooting war.

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