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US trying to cool East China Sea dispute

The United States hopes to mediate China's dispute with Japan over the East China Sea.

Last updated: 05 Dec 2013 12:14
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US Vice President Joe Biden is attempting to ease tensions in the dispute between China and Japan [AP]

Beijing, ChinaUnited States Vice President Joe Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, aiming to ease a flare-up in tensions between China and Japan over the choppy waters of the East China Sea.

Biden's arrival as part of a weeklong trip to Japan, China and South Korea comes in the wake of China imposing air traffic restrictions over a large swath of the East China Sea - and the defiant US response.

"China's recent and sudden announcement of the establishment of a new air defence identification zone has, to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region," Biden said in a speech to US business executives and journalists on Thursday. "I was very direct about our firm position and our expectations in my conversation with President Xi."

Flying in directly from Tokyo, Biden spoke with Xi in a series of meetings and dinners on Wednesday that lasted for five and a half hours. The two leaders reportedly enjoy a good rapport that began several years ago when Xi was still vice president.

We are not dealing with a Chinese government that is likely to be able to simply back down because of the international reaction.

- Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham

"For me, it was quite surprising how strongly-worded [Biden’s] statements were. I didn’t expect him at all to be that determined," said Thomas Koenig, China Programme co-ordinator for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"There’s a certain level of comfort that speaks to the fact that he was able to make those statements," says Koenig. "Kudos to him for probably making the most of a good relation that exists between them. In any good friendship, only honest discourse will lead to anything."

The measures are part of China's newly proclaimed Air Defence Identification Zone, or ADIZ. The Chinese defence ministry has warned all aircraft entering the zone to notify Chinese authorities, or face unspecified "defensive emergency measures".

The unexpected move by China drew sharp rebukes from Japan and its military ally the US, which dispatched a pair of unarmed B-52 bombers to the zone last week in a direct challenge to the area's credibility.

Though Biden urged China to take steps to reduce tensions and refrain from escalating the situation, the vice president stopped short of calling for the zone to be scrapped, as some in Japan and the US have advocated.

No backing down

China would have likely balked at any US attempt to have the scheme scrapped. "If you're talking about whether Biden is going to be able to persuade the Chinese to back off from the ADIZ, I don't think he is going to get that," says Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. "We are not dealing with a Chinese government that is likely to be able to simply back down because of the international reaction."

"It is highly unlikely that China will do that," says Prakash Metaparti, a former commander with the Indian navy and expert on maritime security and logistics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "It would be a serious loss of face if they were to withdraw it… it doesn't look very good domestically for China."

Chinese media coverage of the dispute has been largely sparse and subdued, though users on the country's social networks took the government to task for failing to respond to the B-52 incursion.

Analysts say the cautious Chinese reaction and muted media coverage suggests Beijing anticipated the international outcry over the zone, and is now treading carefully in responding to the diplomatic fallout. Other experts, however, believe China may not have intended to drag the US into the dispute, and miscalculated the level of pushback from Washington.

"At the moment, it looks like it is a carefully calibrated strategy," says Tsang. "The government is very carefully managing it in order to make sure that it does not escalate out of control. You do not have the media making… provocative statements about the Japanese responses to the Chinese ADIZ."

China may also be playing down foreign military flights into the zone for altogether more practical reasons, as some experts have voiced scepticism that the nation has the means to impose the rules it has set for the airspace.

"From a military viewpoint, it is relatively difficult for China to enforce this ADIZ so far off from its coast," says Metaparti, though Tsang added, "If the Japanese got very close to the Chinese coast, then it's a different story."

Questions over China's capabilities have, unsurprisingly, been rejected by the defence ministry. "Some people doubt China's monitoring capabilities in the East China Sea ADIZ," said Geng Yansheng, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defence, in a statement on Wednesday. "The military is fully capable of exercising effective control over the East China Sea ADIZ."

Whatever the reason for China's limited response, one effect is that it may have stopped the standoff from spiralling out of control.

"It's a dangerous game when you have young men flying in fast jets engaging in mock dogfights. Accidents can happen… It's very easy, given the emotions on both sides - particularly the emotions of a lot of the younger Chinese and Japanese military personnel," says Tsang.

History on the high seas

Tokyo has aimed some of the sharpest criticism at China. The new air defence zone includes a significant overlap with Japan's existing zone, and also covers the disputed chain of uninhabited islands called the Senkaku in Japan. China also claims the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. The islands are covered by the 1952 US-Japan security treaty, under which the US is committed to fighting alongside Japan to repel any "common danger".

Japan has held the islands since the late 19th century, but the discovery of nearby energy deposits in the 1970s prompted China and Taiwan to stake their claims.

Inside Story - China and the US: A battle of wills?

Tensions over the islands flared periodically, but China and Japan largely put the dispute on the backburner as trade between Asia's two largest economics grew.

But that status quo changed in September 2012 when the Japanese government bought from their private owner three of the five islands - setting off a wave of anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities and chilling ties between the two nations.

"Japan's view is that they nationalised the islands to prevent an escalation," says Metaparti, referring to a provocative plan by Shintaro Ishihara, then governor of Tokyo, to buy the islands and develop them.

"That would've led to a greater problem, and that's why [the Japan central government] nationalised these islands - to maintain the status quo. But China seems to have taken it as an assertion or reassertion on part of Japan."

Japan has steadfastly refused to admit the existence of a dispute with China over the islands, as Tokyo fears that would embolden Chinese sovereignty claims. The zone is China's latest attempt to force Japan to the negotiating table, says Tsang.

"It is an attempt to change the status quo... it's really about creating a new reality of Chinese administration over that airspace, and therefore making sure it becomes more difficult for the Japanese to deny that there is a dispute over those islands."

Tsang says that by creating the air defence zone, China is relaying two messages. "One is the new assertiveness of the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping… that it is now seriously trying to assert Chinese defence along this so-called first island chain. The second reason is obviously the Diaoyu-Senkaku maritime dispute."

Xi will be keenly aware of the complexities swirling in the East China Sea dispute. Months before he ascended to the presidency in March, Xi was appointed to head an "Office to Respond to the Diaoyu Crisis" created shortly after Tokyo nationalised the islands.

Xi himself would have had the final say on have approving the establishment of the air defence zone. "It would have to go up practically to the very top level," says Tsang.

Japan is "more of an emotional issue" for China, says Metaparti. History has long haunted relations between the two nations, and any attempts to resolve the standoff will be complicated by the looming spectre of the past.

"If you weigh Japan and the US side by side, I assume the Chinese emotional reaction would be much [more] severe in the case of Japan's actions relative to the US."

Both Metaparti and Tsang agree that the next step should be for all sides to dial down rhetoric on the dispute. "The Chinese have made their point. They don't need to respond more than what they have done. Likewise the Japanese and Americans have made their responses," said Tsang.

Follow Colin Shek on Twitter: @ColinShek

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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