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December 4, 2013

Military turbulence in skies off China

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With the recent declaration of a highly-restrictive air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, over a good chunk of the East China Sea, Beijing has skyrocketed regional tensions — just in time for Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, starting today.

What was expected to be a fairly routine, show-the-flag stop for the Veep has now turned into a test of wills for the United States and its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, over China’s continually mind-boggling territorial claims.

This latest act of assertion makes China’s repeated trumpeting of its “peaceful rise” seem more and more like trumpery.

While Beijing is predictably defending its air defense zone against international criticism, including citing “double standards,” the fact is China has a point — up to a point.

Many countries have such air defense zones, including the United States, Japan, and South Korea, where they serve a practical national security purpose.

For instance, during the Cold War, the U.S. air defense zone was meant to differentiate a Soviet bomber coming to nuke Washington from a civilian airliner coming to deliver passengers to Washington. Clearly an important distinction.

But the new Chinese zone goes beyond your run-of-the-mill ADIZ, providing reasons for concern.

First, Beijing’s requirements are unprecedented. Not only will civilian aircraft entering the zone reportedly need to file a flight plan, check in with Chinese air traffic control — and follow instructions — all aircraft will have to comply.

In other words, any civilian or military aircraft transiting through, or operating in, the Chinese “zone” — most of which is international airspace — will require Beijing’s “permission.”

Washington rejected Beijing’s demand that U.S. military aircraft get a Chinese go-ahead to fly in international airspace within the designated zone; last week; it flew a pair of B-52s right through the middle of it to make a point.

In certain areas, the Chinese zone overlaps with zones claimed by Japan and South Korea, making folks there none too happy about the lack of prior consultation — not to mention raising nationalist hackles.

Perhaps worst of all, Beijing decided to include the disputed territory of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (under the control of growing rival Japan) in its zone, highlighting its latest effort at “creeping sovereignty.”

Not exactly the way to put a long-simmering territorial dispute on the path to a peaceful settlement — and a clear challenge to Japan and its defense-treaty ally, the United States.

Making matters more perilous, Beijing is patrolling with warplanes, increasing the chances of a tragic mishap like the Soviet shoot-down of KAL 007 in 1983 or the Chinese fighter collision with a U.S. Navy EP-3 in 2001.

Analysts say Beijing may declare even more such ADIZs, especially in the South China Sea where China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, among others.

At the strategic level, what does this say about China’s new President Xi Jinping, who may have more power over foreign and defense affairs than any leader since Mao?

If this act is any indication of what’s to come, it looks like we could be in for plenty of Beijing-produced political-military turbulence in the Pacific in the years ahead.

- Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

Originally appeared in the Boston Hearald.

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