China wins advantage in air defence zone dispute

US stance during Biden's visit shows China has evaded worst backlash

BEFORE United States Vice-President Joe Biden set foot in Beijing, Chinese state media let loose a chorus of criticism slamming him for siding with Japan over China's new air defence zone. They appear to have changed their tune after his two-day trip, which ended yesterday.

The reason, analysts say, is that his Beijing visit showed that China has escaped the worst backlash over its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and may have even gained the upper hand over Japan in its dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

China Foreign Affairs University analyst Zhou Yongsheng saw the fact that Mr Biden did not publicly press China over the ADIZ when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping as a sign of Beijing's growing importance to Washington compared to Tokyo.

"The US is aware of China's growing economic importance and global influence, and the prospects of deeper economic cooperation. Sino-US cooperation already exceeds that between the US and Japan," he told The Straits Times.

Another example is how Mr Biden did not join Japan's call for China's ADIZ to be scrapped when he was in Tokyo, the first leg of his three-nation tour that included South Korea. Instead, the US urged China not to implement the zone, to take steps to lower tensions, and not to set up new zones elsewhere.

The contrasting positions show that the US sees the need to play the role of an "honest broker" in the territorial dispute so as not to worsen tensions, even though it has a security treaty with Japan.

"The need is particularly high, given the US commitment to a 'new model of major-country relations' with China. Washington needs to respond, but in a smart, sophisticated manner that does not further escalate tensions," said analyst Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre, a foreign policy research institute in Washington.

A closer look at Mr Biden's meetings with Mr Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice-President Li Yuanchao also showed that their discussions went beyond the ADIZ. In fact, according to a US official, a large part of the meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Xi, which lasted two hours instead of the scheduled 45 minutes, was on Pyongyang, Beijing's close communist ally.

Mr Biden's actions on his tour show that Beijing, despite mishandling its ADIZ launch on Nov 23 with unclear and provocative rules, has succeeded in a game- plan of "short-term pain for long-term gain", said Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang.

"The ADIZ has created a new reality and changed the status quo in the East China Sea, and there's nothing much Japan can do about it," said the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies analyst.

Analysts believe Japan is in a bind because of the perceived lack of support from the US. While Tokyo has told its airlines not to comply with China's ADIZ rules, the US government has said its carriers are free to do so.

Said Professor Zhou: "If Japan now allows its carriers to observe the ADIZ rules, it could suffer criticisms that its foreign policy is dictated by the US."

With its ADIZ set to stay and as protests subside, analysts say China could bolster its sovereignty claims by staging military plane patrols in the overlapping air defence zones with Japan so as to challenge Tokyo's administrative control and make it acknowledge there is a dispute.

But Beijing will have to tread carefully, said Associate Professor Li.

Agreeing, Peking University analyst Zha Daojiong said: "What is more relevant is for China to stay the course while working to avoid unintended mishaps."