US, China must learn to manage differences better

THE debate following China's Nov 23 announcement of its East China Sea air defence identification zone (ADIZ) is a solemn reminder that major countries, such as China and the United States, must improve how they handle their differences.

Soon after China's announcement, the US took drastic action by sending two "unarmed" B-52 bombers from Guam into China's new ADIZ to show its defiance, though Pentagon officials also stressed it was a routine flight arranged a long time ago.

Japan and South Korea also sent flights into the zone without reporting to the Chinese authorities. Such defiance is also meant to provoke and therefore is not conducive to solving problems.

Japan reacted because China's ADIZ overlaps with its ADIZ over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But such overlapping should not come as a surprise since most countries - including Japan - know the islands are disputed territories claimed by both countries.

Japan has overreacted by demanding China retract the ADIZ, and led by right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government forced two Japanese airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, to reverse their original intention to file flight plans with the Chinese authorities, which shows it is willing to gamble with the lives of passengers.

China's Foreign Ministry said last Wednesday that 55 airlines from 19 countries and three regions have reported their flight plans to China. There is no doubt that more airlines will follow suit to reduce the risk of any misunderstanding and miscalculation in the airspace. Filing flight plans does no harm; it has only benefits.

After all, the announcement of China's ADIZ is not a declaration of sovereign airspace. So there really should not be so much fuss about it. Japan, the US and many other countries proclaimed theirs decades ago and some have expanded their zones over the years.

The initial response in some countries was so exaggerated you would think China was going to shoot down any plane flying into the ADIZ, something that China has never said it would do, and, of course, has no intention of doing.

It's just like when US President Barack Obama talked about not taking any option off the table in dealing with Iran, Syria and North Korea; no one should see it as the US' willingness to use nuclear weapons against these nations. But many people seem to harbour such thinking when explaining China's ADIZ announcement.

The US is in a dilemma, being caught between Japan, which it considers a key ally and is eager to reassure, and China, whose relationship with the US is often described as most consequential in the world.

Right after China's ADIZ announcement, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel described China's move as "a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region".

However, last Wednesday, Mr Hagel and other US officials softened their tone and started to say that China's mistake was not consulting with other countries before the announcement.

The US continues to say it does not recognise China's ADIZ and hopes China will not implement it, but has advised its international carriers to file their flight plans with the Chinese authorities.

US Vice-President Joe Biden also has tried to strike a balance between Japan and China. He rejected a joint statement with Japan over the ADIZ and did not call on China to retract it. He has tried not to let his long-planned visit to Asia be hijacked by the ADIZ.

All these indicate that the US has tried to be more reasonable after its initial response of dispatching bombers, something that was bound to escalate tensions.

The row over the ADIZ provides both China and the US with an opportunity to learn how to better manage their differences, which will no doubt continue to surface for a long time to come.

Better management of the differences is key to building the proposed new type of relations between major countries.


The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.