Iceman and Maverick in Asia’s Skies

by Michael Auslin

Just over six months ago, China set up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea, including in airspace over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. Tokyo had already established its own ADIZ decades earlier that included the Senkakus. Beijing’s move was provocative, destabilizing, and an indicator of its relentless attempts to redefine Asia’s international order for its own interests. The Obama administration’s response was either praised as rightfully downplaying an insignificant action that didn’t really change much in Asia or was derided as a weak attempt to pretend that nothing serious had happened. Washington flew two B-52s through some part of the zone and then let the whole matter slip from public view, even though civilian airliners changed their operating practices to comply with Beijing’s unique demands to identify themselves even when not approaching Chinese airspace. 

Japan has been the nation most affected by China’s increasing assertiveness, but Tokyo so far has refused to back down. If anything, it is increasing its military activities in the region, as part of a deliberate attempt to offset Beijing’s growing influence. Part of that includes keeping an eye on China’s naval exercises, like the ones it conducted last week with Russia in the East China Sea, near the disputed Senkaku Islands. 

According to press reports, two Japanese surveillance planes monitoring the Sino-Russian exercises were confronted by two Chinese jet fighters, armed with missiles, that flew by as close as 100 feet. At 600 hundred miles per hour, that does not leave a lot of room for error. It was a hotdog Chinese pilot back in March 2001 who collided with an American electronic intelligence plane, killing himself and forcing the Americans to crash land on a Chinese island. Last week, it was Chinese Su-27s, advanced fighters comparable to the U.S. F-15, that played chicken in the skies over the East China Sea. 

The Chinese respect America’s airpower capabilities, and give the U.S. Air Force and Navy a wider berth than they give to the Japanese. The political and cultural hatred that Chinese feel for Japanese translates into a reckless willingness to test the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, just as China’s maritime patrol vessels test the Japanese Coast Guard, and its naval vessels probe into waters patrolled by Tokyo’s maritime forces. Playing chicken at near supersonic speeds, however, is a different game, and one hopes that the Chinese have an Iceman in the cockpit who is skilled enough not to cause a tragic accident that could trigger hostilities.

Observers should be worried that the two sides are steadily probing each other’s resolve, and becoming more aggressive in trying to mark out territory. They are hardening their rhetoric and positions, and making it difficult for either side to back down. With no diplomatic mechanisms in place to resolve a crisis or even to ease tensions, it is just dumb luck (and flying skill) that is preventing a possible crisis in East Asia that would be the worst since the Korean War.

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