The issue: U.S. must assert a firm commitment to freedom of passage in international waters and airspace
Vice President Joe Biden is not noted for his diplomatic skills. He is, however, noted for being plain-spoken, even disconcertingly blunt. He may need the latter trait more than the former during his current tour of East Asia.
CHINA HAS ASSERTED an air defense identification zone over a large expanse of the East China Sea, the immediate practical effect of that move being its demand that other nations give advance notice of any aircraft passing through the zone.
The Chinese ADIZ overlaps with Japan’s existing ADIZ and, moreover, covers islands, Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, controlled by Japan but claimed by both nations.
The U.S. professed itself “deeply concerned” — fairly strong language in the vocabulary of diplomacy — and recently sent two B-52s on an overflight of the area, asserting our right to do so without bothering to inform the Chinese.
This delighted the Japanese and South Koreans. But then the Obama administration alarmed the two countries late last month by urging U.S. civilian airlines to give China advance notice of flights that will cross this newly declared ADIZ. Tokyo and Seoul suspect, probably correctly, that from advance notice it’s a short step to asking permission.
CHINA IS CLEARLY interested in becoming a much more influential, even feared, regional power. However, Beijing’s symbolic expansiveness has set off a so-far modest regional military buildup.
South Korea, according to The New York Times, is building a naval base for 20 warships and submarines to protect its sea lanes in the East China Sea, routes that ironically are largely critical to exports to China.
Japan is building an army base on another island near the two disputed islands and, also according to the Times, is deploying more F-15s, radar planes and a helicopter carrier to Okinawa. This can easily be seen as yet another step away from Japan’s postwar pacifism.
The East China Sea is relatively straightforward compared to another potential flashpoint, the South China Sea, with 30,000 islands and reefs, mostly uninhabited and uninhabitable but with rich fishing grounds and the likelihood of large gas and oil deposits. Parts of that area are claimed, variously, by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
VICE PRESIDENT Biden has an opportunity to head off a larger crisis down the road by expressing, in his inimitable way, the United States’ firm commitment to freedom of innocent passage in international waters and airspace.