Vessels from the China Maritime Surveillance and the Japan Coast Guard near the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea, 2013.
Kyodo / Courtesy Reuters

The Chinese government’s November 23 announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large segment of the East China Sea and a cluster of small, uninhabited islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, poses a fresh and difficult challenge for the United States. The islands are administered by Japan but claimed by both China and Japan, which view them as a redoubt in a vast stretch of ocean with promising oil and natural gas reserves. Until now, Washington has pursued an ambiguous policy on the islands, asserting neutrality on the question of their ultimate ownership (thus pleasing the Chinese) while reassuring Tokyo that it would assist any Japanese forces that come under attack in the area in accordance with the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954. Although this stance was once deemed sustainable -- there appeared to be little chance that the United States would ever be called upon to honor its treaty obligations -- that day is over.

It is not unusual or necessarily provocative for coastal and island states to declare ADIZs over their offshore territories. China’s action in the East China Sea, however, is different. For one thing, Beijing did not discuss its plans with any of its neighbors -- several of which have already established their own ADIZs in the area -- or with the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency within the United Nations tasked with setting air-safety regulations. More important, China extended its zone over the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and into an ADIZ already being enforced by Japan, which was an implicit challenge to Japan’s claims of sovereignty over the islets. To eliminate any doubts about its intentions, Beijing also announced that all aircraft entering the Chinese ADIZ must identify themselves, report their flight plans, and obey any instructions relayed to them by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, warning that a failure to do so could provoke “emergency defensive measures.” Since then, the Chinese have already begun deploying combat jets in the newly established zone. 

For China, the assertion of control over the contested islands and their surrounding waters serves many purposes. Until the late 1960s, China expressed little interest in the islands, which were placed under U.S. administration after World War II and then turned over to Japan in 1971. However, when Japan and Taiwan announced plans to explore for hydrocarbons in adjacent waters in 1970, China claimed the islands, citing their historical use by Chinese ships as navigation aids. China’s insistence on its ownership of these islands has also been used to bolster its argument that it, in fact, owns the development rights to a large swath of the East China Sea, much of which is also claimed by Japan. Had the dispute been between China and some other country, Beijing might be less antagonistic. But Japan’s involvement has only added to China’s determination to prevail, given its searing memories of Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II and the rising nationalistic sentiment among ordinary Chinese.

Despite its policy in the East China Sea, China’s senior leadership is wary of provoking armed conflict or deeply alienating Washington and pushing it closer to Tokyo, which Beijing sees as being controlled by anti-Chinese hard-liners. At the same time, Chinese leaders -- beginning with its president, Xi Jinping -- are fearful of appearing weak in the face of vigorous Japanese efforts to assert Tokyo’s control over the islands. The result has been a calculated, incremental strategy aimed at buttressing Chinese strength in the area and eroding Japan’s determination to defend the islands. The announcement of the ADIZ follows in this pattern: Even as it posed a direct challenge to Japanese authority and carried an implicit threat of military action, it was not an overt military encroachment.

On the Japanese side, the logic is similar. For many in Japan, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are an inseparable part of Japanese territory, and so their loss would represent an assault on the nation’s sovereignty. It sees China as playing an increasingly assertive and overbearing role in the region and fears that any compromise on the islands’ status would be an invitation for further (and even more dangerous) Chinese aggression. Finally, the Japanese -- no less than the Chinese -- hope to exploit the vast oil and natural gas reserves that are thought to lie beneath the disputed waters of the East China Sea.

Even before the establishment of the Chinese ADIZ, Japan had been feeling the heat of increased Chinese military pressure. In September 2012, the government bought the three islands in the group it did not already own (ostensibly to prevent them from falling into the hands of ultranationalists), provoking a howl of protest from Beijing. Ever since then, China has been sending its air and naval vessels into the area claimed by Tokyo, often coming within firing range of the Japanese planes and ships sent to intercept them. The announcement of the ADIZ could push this cat-and-mouse game to a new level, by eliminating (at least in Beijing’s eyes) Japan’s claim that it possesses the exclusive right to police the airspace over the islands.

For China and Japan, therefore, the issues are relatively clear-cut: Both seek to assume ownership of the islands and the surrounding waters and to deny possession of both to the other. For the United States, however, the picture is more complex. It must protect its own interests, aid a longtime ally, and retain good relations with its leading trading partner and creditor.

Starting with the big picture, Washington seeks to restore the United States’ dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region after a decade in which U.S. policymakers were preoccupied with events elsewhere and China, sensing a political vacuum, made significant geopolitical gains in Southeast Asia. To reverse this trend, the Obama administration has decided to reassert U.S. power in the area, a strategy known as the pivot. In essence, this drive is intended to restore the United States’ historic status as the region’s dominant military power, rather than confront China directly. However, given the economic impediments to any significant U.S. military buildup, Washington seeks to rely as much as possible on key allies in the region, especially Japan and South Korea, in countering China’s military buildup; but these countries possess agendas of their own, which can complicate U.S. efforts to pursue its own objectives. Japan, for example, would like the United States to provide more military muscle in efforts to repel Chinese incursions into Japanese-claimed waters of the East China Sea; South Korea seeks U.S. backing in a separate territorial dispute involving the Dokdo Islands (known as the Takeshima Islands in Japan) in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), which are claimed by Japan as well as South Korea. By acquiescing in either, Washington faces extreme risk -- from China if it backs Japan on the East China Sea dispute, from Japan if it backs South Korea on the Sea of Japan dispute.

If it is to remain a superpower in the Pacific, there are several things that Washington must do. First, it must show that it will defy Chinese requirements to provide information on any of its military aircraft to the Chinese Ministry of Defense. This it did handily on November 26, when two B-52 bombers conducted what was described as a “normal” training mission through the area. The move, said a top Pentagon official, “was a demonstration of long-established international rights to freedom of navigation through international airspace.” Recognizing the importance Washington ascribes to these rights, the Chinese wisely chose to ignore the B-52 intrusion. 

Washington’s next priority is to reaffirm its commitment to the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty and its intentions to assist Japan if it were to come under attack. That box was checked in early December, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Japan and assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other top leaders of the United States’ unwavering support. Portraying the Chinese move as a dangerous effort to “unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Biden promised to raise U.S. concerns over the ADIZ when meeting with Chinese officials a few days hence.

But reassuring Tokyo is not Washington’s sole priority. Even more than he seeks to restore U.S. power and prestige and power in the Pacific, President Barak Obama wants to promote continued economic growth -- and that, he believes, requires good (if not necessarily warm) relations with China plus a reasonable degree of international peace and stability. In other words, preventing a violent confrontation over the ADIZ -- so long as the United States’ right of passage remains unquestioned -- trumps all other considerations. This is implicit, for example, in the administration’s decision to notify U.S. airlines to respect China’s instructions when crossing through the Chinese ADIZ (unlike the Japanese government, which has ordered its airlines to ignore the Chinese requirements). It is also evident in the emphasis Biden and others have placed on seeking to avoid “unintended escalation” in the airspace over the East China Sea.

Accordingly, Biden struck a conciliatory tone when he met with Xi and other top leaders on December 4. Still adhering to the United States’ neutral position on the ultimate ownership of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, he offered Washington’s help in de-escalating the crisis and devising a peaceful solution. Although Chinese leaders seek to maintain positive relations with the United States, however, they evidently believe that Obama has been forced -- as a consequence of the pivot strategy -- to move closer to Japan on the East China Sea dispute, and so are unwilling to trust Washington to play an honest broker role. Not surprisingly, Xi showed no interest in Biden’s offer to help arrange a peace deal with Japan over the East China Sea.

For Washington, then, the strategy of ambiguity has come to a dead end. To placate Tokyo and maintain the credibility of the Mutual Defense Treaty, U.S. leaders have had to endorse Abe’s hard line on the ADIZ and promise military aid as necessary. “The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V [defining ratification] of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared in late November. Hagel’s statement can only be read as an endorsement of Japan’s claim to ownership of the islands -- he calls them by their Japanese name alone -- and of an ironclad promise to provide U.S. military support in the event any Japanese aircraft come under attack in the Chinese-declared ADIZ.

But this leaves very little room for progress on efforts to avert unintended escalation. That would require a recommitment to a policy of strict neutrality on the issue of sovereignty and vigorous U.S. efforts to promote meaningful negotiations between Beijing and Tokyo on the disputed territories. Obama and his top aides must therefore consider which priority, the credibility of the pivot or the avoidance of conflict, is the most pressing, as the risk of confrontation in the East China Sea will not go away anytime soon.

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  • MICHAEL T. KLARE is Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left.
  • More By Michael T. Klare