Vice President Joe Biden is on a delicate mission to Asia this week. Not only must Biden calm anxieties over escalating military brinksmanship in the East China Sea, but he must do so in a manner that demonstrates full support for Japan and South Korea, two key US allies, while also protecting the safety of civilian aircraft in the region.
At the heart of the quarrel are the tiny Senkaku Islands, which Japan has controlled since the 1970s but China dubiously included last month in a newly declared “air defense identification zone.” The isles are coveted for their location near large reserves of natural resources. China has demanded that aircraft flying through the new zone submit flight plans, stay in radio contact with Chinese authorities, and follow their instructions. Yet complying with these wishes would legitimize China’s control of the airspace, encouraging it to establish similar zones elsewhere — an outcome its neighbors are right to be wary of. Beijing already has announced that its navy’s sole aircraft carrier is headed toward the South China Sea, where it asserts ownership of waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.
Washington historically has taken no position on the sovereignty of the uninhabited islands, but the United States is adamant that it will not recognize China’s air defense zone — the only tenable position that won’t jeopardize ties to Japan or South Korea. By flying two unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone early last week, the US military no doubt hoped China would ease its newly assertive posture.
But while the Chinese seemingly ignored the flyover, their subsequent actions have been more aggressive. On Friday, China scrambled fighter jets to investigate US and Japanese aircraft flying through the zone, the first time it is known to have sent military aircraft into the airspace alongside foreign flights. This endangers not only military personnel, but also commercial airliners, which have received conflicting advice on whether or not to cooperate with Chinese demands.
Washington must not let itself be dragged into a larger regional conflict. Biden will visit the capitals of all three contestants in the standoff — Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. He must find a way for China to back off without losing face, while also making sure that Japan and South Korea feel their interests are protected. To accomplish all this will be no small diplomatic feat. But no one wins if cooler heads don’t prevail.