A solution for the East China Sea


Chinese-made military jets at the People's Liberation Army Aviation Museum in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013.


Mark Ralston

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Like wiley Odysseus seeking to steer between the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis, so must the United States avoid being bullied by an emerging China, while at the same time avoid being pushed into unnecessary conflict with China by its Pacific allies.

China wants one day to be able to dominate the Western Pacific in the way that the US has for 200 years dominated the Western Hemisphere. In fact, when asserting their rights, the Chinese refer to the Monroe Doctrine by which an emerging US warned the European powers to stay out of the affairs of the Americas. At the time, when President James Monroe put forth his doctrine in 1823, the US didn’t have a powerful enough fleet to enforce it, but still it was a line that our nation didn’t want crossed.

China does not yet have the power to militarily challenge the US in the Western Pacific, and so smaller nations in the East and South China Seas — Japan, Korea, Taiwan, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, even further away Indonesia and Brunei  — look to the US to protect them. They do not want to be treated by China the way Central America has been treated by the US.

It is a delicate balance, managing the competition with a rising China and at the same time standing up for our Pacific allies. On Nov. 23, China upset that balance by unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), warning that henceforth any nation’s planes entering the zone must report to, and obey, Chinese air controllers.

Other nations have their ADIZs, including the US, but China’s new claim overlaps with Japan’s, most noticeably over the disputed and uninhabited islands which China calls Diaoyu and Japan calls Senkaku.

Technically an ADIZ is not supposed to imply sovereignty. It is supposed to establish rules of the road, to give warning should attackers approach a country’s actual airspace. But emotionally, it does. You can demand the identity of someone on your front steps or on your lawn. It is another matter to demand to know who is passing by on the sidewalk.

Obama was right to send two unarmed B-52 bombers over the disputed isles on a previously scheduled mission without bending to China’s demand that they check in with China’s air controllers first. Freedom of navigation has been a tenant of American foreign policy since the US first broke free from Great Britain.

But the US was also correct in allowing civilian airliners to obey China’s new rules that, for a time, infuriated Japan which saw it as caving in to China. Civilian air traffic needs to be kept out of these international dust ups. Airlines should check in with any nation as a safety measure, not a kow–tow.

Japan was also disappointed that Vice President Joe Biden did not demand that China roll back its ADIZ. But Biden knew that would be too humiliating to the Chinese. Better to say the US doesn’t recognize it and let it go at that.

China has territorial disputes over bits of Pacific rocks with Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, even tiny Brunei, as they all have with each other. At stake are the possible oil, gas and minerals under the ocean floor.

But also at stake, and this is far more dangerous, is national pride. Now that Communist ideology is a dead letter, patriotism and nationalism are important to China to keep a disparate nation together.

More from GlobalPost: War between China and Japan is an accident waiting to happen

Japan, too, seems to be emerging from the pacifism that ruled since their American-imposed constitution banished militarism. From time to time the US has encouraged Japan to re-arm, which always seemed to me like offering a drink to a recovering alcoholic. Unlike Germany, Japan has not fully owned up to its World War II crimes, which infuriates China and other World War II victims.

The US has a treaty commitment to defend Japan, but at the same time the US has an interest in not letting Japan, or its other Pacific allies, be too provocative towards China. Taiwan, for example, could bring on a war if it declared its independence from China.

The disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have become too much of a potential flashpoint. Up to now, Japan and China have consulted with each other and their naval visits have in a sense been choreographed. But for China to claim the airspace is another matter, fraught with peril.

I have often thought that a perfect solution would be for Japan to sell the disputed islands to Taiwan. Since both Taiwan and China officially agree that there is only one China, Beijing could say that Diaoyu is now back under de jure Chinese sovereignty, while Japan could say that it didn’t give in to China’s demands on Senkaku. But there are no perfect solutions in the China Seas.