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The US flies B-52s into China's new air defense zone. Here's why that matters

Thanks to Beijing’s bold new initiative, the risk of war in East Asia just got a lot more serious. Q&A with Carlyle Thayer.

China air defense identification zoneEnlarge
China's new "air defense identification zone" overlaps with Japan's, raising the risk of war in East Asia. ( /Screengrab)

UPDATE: On Tuesday morning Beijing time, two US B-52 bombers flew over the disputed Senkaku/Daiyou islands, "in a direct challenge" to China's new air defense zone, US officials have told the Wall Street Journal.

HONG KONG — Over the weekend, as world powers were busy negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, China declared the existence of a new “air defense identification zone.”

To understand why East Asia is aflutter over the matter, it helps to look at a map.  

On the left, in pink, is China. Note the red line delineating a polygon, extending from its coast deep into the East China Sea. This is the area in which China claims that any military plane must identify itself and follow China’s rules or face “defensive emergency measures” from the armed forces.

On the right, in khaki, is Japan. Its own blue line extends south, off the coast of China. This is Japan’s air-defense identification zone.

In the middle of the polygon, over the Japanese-controlled (and China-coveted) Senkaku islands, these zones overlap.

And it’s in this large area zone claimed by both countries where the risk for accidents and military conflagration has just gotten a whole lot worse.

Not to mention that the United States, Japan, and South Korea all make routine military flights over large portions of the East China Sea that China has just claimed as under its control.  

Japan and the US have both condemned China’s move as a provocative escalation. China, in turn, has called Japanese objections “impudent” and “hypocritical,” and said that America should stop making “inappropriate remarks.”

More from GlobalPost: War between Japan and China is an accident waiting to happen

In its defense, Chinese military experts have pointed out that 20 countries have air-defense zones — including America.

To understand the risks and reasoning behind China’s gambit to change the status quo in the East China Sea, GlobalPost interviewed Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and an expert on maritime security in Asia.

This interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: Is it correct to view this as a provocation? Do you think it will increase the risk of accidents and military conflict?

Carlyle Thayer: Yes. It’s an air defense interdiction zone that goes over sovereign territory, Japan’s Senkaku islands. It creates huge confusions and risks and has been protested in various forms by Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the US.

Don't Japan and the US have their own "Air Defense Identification Zones"? Doesn’t China have a good case to make that it should also have an air defense zone?

Sure, but they’re doing it on somebody else’s property. The US interdiction zone applies only to planes flying into the United States. It does not apply to plans flying through the US zone.   

Why is this happening?

The problem is mainly China vs. Japan, and Abe is not bending, and China does not like it.

China wants the Senkaku islands. If China does nothing, the status quo remains, and they can’t get them.  When China said it was sending drones over the Senkakus earlier this month, and Japan said it would shoot them down, that got them nowhere. So they have to keep pushing the envelope. Either provoke Japan into attacking, or having Japan back down and say, “OK, we’ll talk.”

What you have here is a provocation, an escalation. It’s designed to upset the status quo. Partly it’s also playing with Japan’s mind. Do you really want to stand up for this, or do you want to stand down? It’s very calculated pressure.

How does the US fit into this picture?

China is trying to drive a wedge in the [US-Japan] alliance by saying, “You won’t go to war over a couple of islands.” The US position is when countries try to unilaterally overturn international law, they have a calibrated strategy of just ignoring it. The fact that it was [Secretary of State] John Kerry and [Secretary of Defense] Chuck Hagel who responded to China’s announcement — that’s pretty heavyweight.

By the US coming in, it takes China’s challenge to Japan and raises the ante a bit. China is confronted. Do they really believe the US statement [that America’s defense treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku islands]?
The response on China’s internet has been largely enthusiastic. The overwhelming response seems to be, “So it raises tensions? Good, better to let the Japanese know we mean business.” How do you expect this to play out?

A lot of this is a charade, it’s a propaganda game. But it has risks. At the moment, given past behavior, I don’t expect any incident to occur. But it could. And that's the problem. Eighty percent of me is saying it’s just play acting, the other 20 percent is saying if you’re a desk officer, you have to expect the worst. How do we tell our pilots to react if they encounter the Chinese? If the Japanese turn tail, are they conceding sovereignty? This is what China is raising. It’s taking things into ambiguous territory.

It’s math: you can’t have PLA and Japan armed jets over the Senkakus at the same time. If you do have them out there, what are the rules of engagement? What do you tell them to do?

If a Chinese jet got shot down, what would China gain from this? It would have a propaganda victory of claiming to be a victim. But the larger picture is that this is not the time. China needs a peaceful environment to grow.

I don’t think China wants this to lead to conflict. But no one can put the genie of nationalism back into the bottle.

EDDIE More than 1 year ago
Chinese...go figure. They strip mine the oceans. They decimate our species and those of other countries in order to improve their sexual inabilities. They are a malignancy of the earth...
Stephen Swain More than 1 year ago
It's a distraction, calculated to see if the US can manage to do a little multi-tasking. If the DOD wanted to orbit AWACS and tankers and F-15s and F-22s over that little patch of sea, it could easily do so. This move really won't do the Chinese any good. And if the Japanese see fit to change their constitution, it will bode ill for the Chinese, who are always probing and bluffing. This will not lead to war in Asia. But ti could be irritating.
Paul More than 1 year ago
the people it is worst for is the Japanese as they will be faced with an undemocratic constitution and loss of individual rights while at the same time being put into the situation where they may have to fight a war in which they could never win, even if the US came to their aid. Foreign trade would be disrupted and the economy would crush putting a large proportion of the population out of work. Heaven forbid it actually came to more than an air battle. No-one could calculate the costs.
JSconceptUK More than 1 year ago
Whatever the dispute: 1. In the course of recent history, there have been Japanese inhabitants on the land. History over the long term has shown records of Chinese traders stopping by the island, but there are no records of Chinese inhabitants ever inhabiting the island. 2. From a military perspective - For almost 70 years since the end of WW2, Japan has controlled the airspace, and has constantly scrambled jets to lead out any aircraft approaching the Japanese air domain over the Senkaku. China only started scrambling jets to this region this year; and even today Chinese aircraft comply after being given signal firing by the JASDF. 3. From perspective of International Law - China never complained about the Senkaku being included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty after WW2, and the U.S- Japan alliance includes the Senkaku, as the U.S administration have stated last week. The Chinese only started claiming the islands when it was rumoured the islands harboured oil and gas reserves. As of now, there is no dispute. Japan has control, and China is seeking to steal it away from them, and failing on mass proportions. If you walk up to your neighbour and tell him his back yard belongs to you despite the fence, perhaps he'd be like "sure yeah"? Well, unfortunately not. Japan will not be provoked into talks. This situation is the worst scenario for Japan; if they admit that a dispute exists; talks will start. Once Japan gives in to talks, then the blackmailing will start, and China will cut off resources, and spread the seeds of anti-Japanese riots all over China. Japan cannot afford that, which is why they are refusing diplomatic talks. They will not fire for law prohibits them from firing unless fired upon, but they will not negotiate with robbers.
Zhmz Shorthouse More than 1 year ago
cut the craps! it is japan who breached either the ultimatun which japan signed in the world war II and the agreement with china to established diplomatic relationship between them. both of these documents in black and white specified the territory of the japan after 1945. it is japan who recently trying to claim the ownership of the island offically, then china had to do somthing to avoid the islands were robbed away by a slik thief!! open you eye, have a look the Ultimatun of the japan's surrender... inicially japan had rejected after a month they read it... and immediately they got couple of A-bombs... and they bended to accept full terms of it... and china had been fighting to exist for 14 years and 35 million chinese lives were lost... japan had taken advantage of the civil war afterwards in china and shrugged shoulder and did not even it is even coming up to rob the islands out of is insult of the civilised world...ridiculous!
JSconceptUK More than 1 year ago
Well, Japan already claimed the islands, and there were JAPANESE INHABITANTS living on them before the war. China said nothing when the Islands were listed in the peace treaty in San Francisco after WW2, and then as soon as there were rumours about resources there in the 60's, suddenly started to claim them. Since the invention of modern maritime law, Japan has claimed them all the time, it is China who tried to rip it out of Japan. I should suggest you check all facts, treaties, and historic inhabitants before talking of black and white my friend.