On Saturday November 23, the Chinese Ministry of Defence announced an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in which it requires all aircraft to register their flight plans with Chinese authorities. The move has triggered an outpouring of condemnation from Asian capitals and bewilderment from analysts. Lost in all this has been the fact that U.S. officials overreacted to the move and in doing so, may have undermined Washington’s ability to work with the new leadership in China.

A quick glance at the map indicates two problems with the ADIZ. First, the zone covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are occupied by Japan but claimed by China. Second, the zone overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ, in existence since 1969. Leaving aside why China chose this moment to further aggravate relations with Japan and the United States, as well as South Korea and Taiwan, it bears considering that, among all the countries affected, the strongest reaction came from Washington DC.  Secretary of State John Kerry called the announcement an attempt to “alter the status quo in the East China Sea.” Similarly, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel described the move as “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and maintained that the announcement would not change U.S. military operations in the region. Although the Pentagon was correct to assert the legitimacy of U.S. military operations off the coast of China, and equally correct to exercise this right by flying two B-52 bombers through the ADIZ on Tuesday, the remainder of the American reaction has vastly exceeded the severity of China’s action.

Indeed, the ADIZ does not change the status quo in the East China Sea. The Japanese have been clear that, from their perspective, the status quo changed in 2008 when China first sent coast guard vessels into the territorial sea of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Meanwhile, China claims to have changed the status quo by regularizing coast guard patrols of the territorial sea only after Japan’s nationalization of the islands in 2012. Neither of these events were characterized as such by the U.S. government.

Moreover, in 2013 China intruded into disputed airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and began new drilling operations near the median line, which were both protested by Japan. These are both more serious violations of Japan’s claims to the islands and waters of the East China Sea than the declaration of an ADIZ.

Secretary Hagel’s statement that the move altered the status quo in the region also suggests that the United States maintains a double standard towards China. The U.S. and its allies like South Korea and Japan are allowed to have ADIZs; China is not. Problematically, the PLA’s magazine, the Liberation Army Daily, has already accused the U.S. of just such a double standard. There are currently no rules that forbid China’s declaration of an overlapping ADIZ.

How can we explain the U.S.’s reaction? Washington has been criticized by Japan for not offering more robust support in its dispute with China. For example, National Security Advisor Susan Rice did not use the word “Senkaku” in a recent speech at Georgetown University, departing from earlier practice by John Kerry. Instead, when addressing maritime disputes, Rice called on all parties to reject coercion and aggression. However, from the Japanese perspective they have not engaged in coercion and have instead been victims of Chinese aggression. Rice’s speech also endorsed the Chinese term “new type of major power relations,” which was interpreted in Japan as excessively conciliatory to China given the events in East Asia in recent years.

Japan increasingly harbours insecurities that the U.S. and China will either bury the hatchet or that China’s growing strength will cause U.S. policymakers to remain on the sidelines if Sino-Japanese maritime tensions escalate. Thus, to compensate and assuage Japanese concern, the Kerry and Hagel statements were overly strong in their language and both reiterated the U.S. commitment to its allies in the region.

The American reaction is a function of the fine line Washington must walk between its ally and its emerging rival. Washington is trying to keep the Abe government from reacting too strongly. There is genuine concern in Washington that Abe will use the ADIZ declaration as a pretext to visit the Yasukuni Shrine or take some other provocative step to demonstrate his willingness to stand up to China. Of course, such an act would only further aggravate the cycle of tensions in the region.

On balance, the strength of Washington’s response outweighed the severity of the act. While China’s move was poorly timed, insensitive and unnecessary, it was not a change in the status quo in East Asia. Indeed, given that China already intercepts U.S. military aircraft that fly near its shores, the ADIZ changes little for the United States. Washington should have merely expressed concern about the overlap and reiterated its right to conduct military operations.

To characterize this move as a change in status quo overstates the severity of the development and under states the severity of China’s actions in Japan’s territorial sea over the past year. The American response has damaged U.S.-China relations by strengthening the hands of hard liners early in the tenure of the new Xi Jinping administration. The consequences of this will be felt for some time.

Japan increasingly harbours insecurities that the U.S. and China will either bury the hatchet or that China’s growing strength will cause U.S. policymakers to remain on the sidelines if Sino-Japanese maritime tensions escalate.
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