Japan, US squeeze China's ADIZ
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - At a recently concluded summit with Japan in Tokyo, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asians (ASEAN) joined their host in thinly veiled criticism of China's newly declared air identification defense zone (ADIZ) for areas covering the East China Sea.
The ADIZ, announced by Beijing in late November, covers areas disputed with Japan and has been strongly rebuked by South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. Beijing has insisted the ADIZ is consistent with international laws and other countries' declared sovereign aerial space.
ASEAN and Japan's joint statement, issued nominally to recognize 40 years of diplomatic relations, agreed to "cooperation
in ensuring the freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law".
The statement reflects underlying concerns in Southeast Asia that China intends to extend the ADIZ to include contested territorial areas in the South China Sea. While the statement did not include any tangible commitments from its signatories, some analysts viewed it as a potential watershed in future regional strategic alignments vis-a-vis China.
While ASEAN members are worried about the implications of a prospective ADIZ over the South China Sea - a move which would intensify territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines - Japan is primarily interested in steering a new regional coalition aimed at containing China.
After decades of strong growth in ASEAN-China relations, Tokyo is now re-asserting its historical influence and strong commercial presence in the region. Apart from its dominance in the Asian Development Bank, the region's primary inter-governmental development agency, Japan is an important trade partner and source of investment and development aid for Southeast Asian nations.
Japan was also at the forefront of humanitarian operations in the aftermath of Haiyan typhoon crisis in the Philippines, providing US$30 million in financial aid, deploying three warships from its Maritime Self-Defense Force and sending as many as 1,200 members of its Self Defense Forces staff to assist with relief work on the ground. The combined effort represented the largest post-Word War II humanitarian contingent deployed by Japan's armed forces.
Having risen to power in late 2012, the administration of Shinzo Abe is intent on re-establishing Japan as a regional power, including by gradually shedding its pacifist constitution and reviving its economy through expansionary monetary policies. As part of this gambit, Abe has openly identified Southeast Asia as a key frontline in its intensifying rivalry with China.
In a sign of its hardening position, Japan published on December 11 the drafts of its first national security strategy, including an assessment of its future military needs. The strategy calls for a five-year military build-up, primarily to strengthen the country's aerial and maritime control of disputed territories in the East China Sea.
At the same time, Japan has stepped up its commitments to Southeast Asia, offering $19.4 billion in aid and development loans to ASEAN members at the recently concluded summit meeting. ASEAN leaders warmly received the offer, stating how they look forward to Japan playing a more prominent role through "contributing constructively to peace, stability and development in the region".
The assistance represents a direct challenge to the multi-billion dollar trade and investment pledges China made at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN summits held in Indonesia and Brunei in early October. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang took center stage at those events, in the palpable absence of US President Barack Obama, who was contending with the temporary shutdown of government in Washington.
Abe, in a dramatic display of his confidence in rallying the region against China, used the recent summit in Tokyo to openly criticize China's ADIZ as a destabilizing measure that "unjustly infringes on freedom of flight over the high seas". He also suggested convening a special ASEAN-Japan informal meeting with regional defense ministers to discuss security issues, including non-traditional challenges such as disaster relief.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei swiftly chided the Japanese prime minister, characterizing Abe's comments as "slanderous" while defending the ADIZ as a legitimate measure that seeks to defend China's sovereignty without violating established international practices and legal norms.
In line with its traditional neutrality, ASEAN declined to entertain a purely defense-oriented bilateral meeting with Tokyo, fearing this could antagonize China and compromise years of careful engagement with the region's giant neighbor. Brunei, ASEAN's current chair, bid to focus on economic ties and downplayed talk of security cooperation.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discouraged Japan against any swift and provocative shift in its defense posture, calling instead for a "gradual and transparent" evolution in Japan's foreign policy towards the region. He added: "Good relations between China and Japan are critical to the future of our region."
ASEAN's polite rejection of a pure defense-oriented meeting has not discouraged individual member states, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, from pursuing deeper bilateral ties to bolster their deterrence capabilities against China. Abe's hawkish stance is part of a larger regional strategic re-alignment under the US's "pivot" to Asia, which is widely viewed as an effort to contain China's rising influence and territorial assertiveness.
Washington has openly supported Japan's bid to become a more independent power in Asia, one that could serve as a counterweight to China and assist strategic allies such as the Philippines and Vietnam to cope with an increasingly precarious regional environment. The US has also flatly rejected China's ADIZ, viewing it as a provocative challenge to the region's prevailing balance of power.
"China's [ADIZ] announcement will not affect US military operations in the region," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in mid-December soon after US and Chinese naval vessels nearly collided in regional waters on December 5. "The [ADIZ] should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, particularly in the South China Sea."
Beijing has not publicly responded to the near collision but a state-run Global Times newspaper report quoted by the Associated Press claimed that the US ship harassed China's Liaoning aircraft carrier by drifting too close to a naval drill it was conducting with support ships. The report claimed the US vessel inappropriately entered the Chinese fleet's "inner defense layer".
Following on Abe's call for a unified regional stance, Kerry this week made high-profile visits to Vietnam and the Philippines, lobbying for deeper strategic ties and underscoring Washington's commitment to regional strategic allies.
Kerry backed his rhetoric with funds, pledging $32.5 million for maritime security assistance to Vietnam, including $18 million earmarked for five Coast Guard patrol boats. Kerry referred to the promised aid as a "gradual and deliberate expansion" of US support to regional allies that will rise to over $156 million over the next two years.
"Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region," Kerry stated after holding talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh. "We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims." He said the ADIZ "clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident".
In his first trip to the Philippines as the US's top diplomat, Kerry met his counterpart Albert Del Rosario, viewed as one of the most vocal proponents of a deeper US strategic footprint in Asia, as well as President Benigno Aquino, who has strongly criticized China's imposition of the ADIZ.
In light of the deadlock in Philippine-US negotiations over an expanded American rotational military presence at the Subic and Clark bases, with both sides failing to agree on the nature and ownership of US troops and military equipment positioned on Philippine soil, Kerry pushed for a timely finalization of an enhanced defense agreement. To sweeten the deal, Kerry offered $40 million in maritime security and counter-terrorism assistance during his visit.
China's ADIZ has handed Japan and the US a strategic boost, giving both Pacific powers an opportunity to step up their bilateral strategic ties with the Philippines and Vietnam while rallying ASEAN against China's perceived threat to regional maritime security and freedom of navigation. It remains to be seen, however, how China responds to what it views as an increasingly concerted effort to contain its rise and influence.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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