Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

A series of eight tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea has been the source of rising political tensions between China and Japan in recent months. Known to the Chinese as Diaoyu and the Japanese as Senkaku, the islands have been administratively controlled by Japan since the late 19th century, except during the post-World War II American administration over Japan. China has claimed sovereignty over the islands since the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1945. China bases it claim on historical control over the islands that dates back to the 14th century.

Last week, the dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands escalated once again with the unilateral announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by China. An Air Defense Identification Zone is a defined airspace in which incoming aircrafts to a country must identify themselves over radio to that country’s authorities. Countries with long maritime borders commonly use these zones to protect their national security interests.

The ADIZ set up by China last week includes a large portion of the East China Sea that overlaps with ADIZs of both South Korea and Japan. It also covers the airspace above the Senkaku Islands. In addition to requiring aircrafts bound for its national airspace to identify themselves, China has also demanded that any aircrafts flying through its ADIZ to do the same. China has said that it will enforce the zone with military defense measures.

The announcement of an East China Sea ADIZ infuriated both Japan and South Korea, who perceive the move as part of a long-term strategy of the Chinese to extend its sovereignty claims. In a statement from the Pentagon last Monday, a US Department of Defense spokesperson said that the United States Air Force would not obey the identification requirement. Those words were backed by action a day later when two American B-52 bombers flew through the ADIZ for what the Pentagon claimed to be a pre-planned military exercise. The jets did not encounter any reactions from the Chinese during their flight.

Later in the week, both South Korea and Japan also flew their own military aircrafts through the Chinese ADIZ without notifying Beijing authorities. Similar to the American flights, the Japanese and Korean planes ran into no troubles from the Chinese. China responded later in the week by saying that they had monitored these aircrafts. The Chinese military also sent planes to the zone for a show of force that it described as a harmless air patrol.

On Friday, the United States cautioned American commercial airlines to acquiesce to China’s demands for identification and flight plans of aircrafts passing through its ADIZ. At the same time, the United States government emphasized that this word of caution was for the sole purpose of passenger safety and did not represent general American acquiescence to China’s actions.

In response to the threats of non-compliance from its neighbors, China has pointed out that such identification zones are commonplace, even among countries in the area. Indeed, Japan’s own ADIZ extends as close to China as 100 miles in some places.

The rising of political tensions between China and Japan comes at a time when leaders of both countries have taken a more nationalistic stance in recent months. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, elected in Sept. 2012, is seeking to amend the Japanese Constitution to make Japan less dependent on the United States for defense, while President Xi Jinping, who took over as Chinese Community Party leader in Nov. 2012, has sought to rally the Chinese people around a spirit of “national renewal.”

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Beyond the Bubble