- - Thursday, November 28, 2013

China’s effort to isolate Japan as its primary regional competitor has unraveled in less than a week: World powers rallied to echo Tokyo’s outrage over Beijing setting up an air defense zone that encompasses much of the air defense zones of neighboring countries.

The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which Beijing established Nov. 23, covers a large area beyond its territorial waters and overlaps similar zones of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — including several hot spots that are the object of competing territorial claims. China announced it is treating the zone as part of its administrative control.

“The East China Sea Air Identification Zone includes the airspace within the area enclosed by the outer limit of China territorial waters and six other points,” said Xinhua, the official state-run news agency.

The Chinese military issued new rules demanding that all aircraft flying into the zone supply Beijing with pre-flight information on flight plans and radio, transponder and aircraft logo identifications.

“China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions,” the military announced.

The zone does not distinguish between civilian and military aircraft, essentially subjecting all foreign aircraft in the area — including U.S., Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese military vehicles — to submit to Chinese control or face the prospect of being shot down.

International outrage quickly ensued.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued a statement saying the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the zone and accused Beijing of unilaterally attempting to change the status quo in the volatile region.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded more forcefully: “We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region [It] will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”

Perhaps the most crucial response from Washington were Mr. Hagel’s concluding remarks: “We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The United States reaffirms its long-standing policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku islands.”

That comment served to dash any hope in Beijing that Washington might ditch its ally Tokyo in any direct armed conflict between China and Japan over the disputed islands.

That is particularly significant, considering the increased hobnobbing between the Chinese army and the Pentagon, which many observers view as a Chinese charm offensive aimed at neutralizing the U.S.

Japan’s response was predictable and fierce.

“The airspace the Chinese side established today is totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable as it includes the Japanese territorial airspace over the Senkaku islands, an inherent territory of Japan,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

South Korea, China’s new would-be ally against Japan, also voiced outrage. The Chinese zone includes South Korea’s Ieodo rock, a submerged rock administered by Seoul but also sought by China. Seoul’s diplomatic and defense officials firmly declared the Chinese zone null and void.

The zone also overlaps Taiwan’s airspace. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, known for his soft-line policies toward Beijing, said he was “gravely concerned” despite an awkward attempt to play down its significance.

But Taiwanese opposition leader Su Tseng-chang called the zone a Chinese “scheme for regional hegemony,” and urged the Ma administration to have some backbone.

On Monday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Yung-lo Lin said Taiwan, Japan and the U.S. already had made “necessary contact” with each other concerning China’s new zone.

On Thursday, China said it sent warplanes into its maritime air defense zone, days after the U.S., South Korea and Japan all sent flights through the airspace in defiance of Beijing’s rules, the Associated Press reported.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.

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