The Obama administration appears to be launching a new diplomatic push to prevent China from imposing another destabilizing air defense zone over international waters.
China watchers say the administration’s pushback against China is probably too little, too late, as China reportedly is making legal preparations for the new air defense zone over the South China Sea.
Administration political messaging has been confused, vacillating between statements of U.S. neutrality in maritime disputes and mild statements of support for regional friends and allies, analysts say.
In an apparent attempt to remedy the problem, senior military leaders and White House and State Department officials in recent days issued relatively tough warnings to Beijing not to impose an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the contested South China Sea.
China heightened tensions in the region late last year by imposing an ADIZ over the East China Sea, including waters off Japan’s Senkaku islands that China claims as its territory. Japan, South Korea and the United States said they will ignore China’s claims over the sea.
Recently, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that China appears to be readying another zone over the South China Sea, a move that is expected to set off further confrontations with Southeast Asian states including Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, which use the waters for fishing and are eyeing undersea oil and gas deposits.
On Monday, Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, bluntly stated that China’s imposition of a South China Sea ADIZ would be a “very provocative act.”
“The risk from miscalculation is high. It’s greater than it should be,” Gen. Carlisle told Bloomberg News in Singapore.
The general’s comments drew a harsh rebuke from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, who denounced what she termed “irresponsible” remarks.
However, Ms. Hua in a briefing for reporters in Beijing did not deny plans are underway for a South China Sea ADIZ. She suggested that the current security environment did not warrant it.
“Setting up air defense identification zones is a legitimate right exercised by China as a sovereign state,” Ms. Hua said on Monday.
On Tuesday in San Diego, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, voiced concerns about increasing Chinese aggressiveness in the region.
Adm. Harris criticized China’s November imposition of the East China Sea zone. “Our criticism  is less about its right to do so, but rather how they did it, in a unilateral attempt to change the status quo,” the four-star admiral said at a conference. “I also have concerns about the aggressive growth of the Chinese military [and] their lack of transparency.”
Adm. Harris said China’s attempt to force the guided missile destroyer USS Cowpens to stop in the South China Sea weeks ago shows the danger of a “miscalculation.”
U.S. officials said a Chinese amphibious ship sailed within 100 yards of the Cowpens and stopped, resulting in a near-collision on Dec. 5.