The United States is right to have ignored China’s declaration of an air-defence zone over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. The islands themselves – tiny, uninhabited lumps of land – are insignificant. But China’s declaration of a kind of airborne sovereignty over them amounts to a unilateral and unacceptable escalation of a low-level conflict. It raises tensions between China and Japan, and threatens to destabilize the entire region, since China has similar, ongoing disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other maritime neighbours.
Japan administered the islands for decades, but China has long laid claim to them. The two countries’ dispute runs right down to their names: Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands while China refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands. National pride is at stake, and natural resources, too: The islands may lie atop rich petroleum reserves.
On paper, both countries have a strong case. The islands appeared on Chinese maps for centuries, but were annexed by Japan in 1895. The dispute has been hot and cold for years. It grew hotter than ever after China said this weekend that it was declaring what it called an air-defence identification zone over the area to “guard against potential air threats.” That’s a thin front for a land grab. Washington has rightly denounced the move as a provocation, designed to change the status quo. The U.S. almost immediately dispatched two B-52 bombers to fly through the air space, pointedly ignoring Beijing’s demands to file advance flight plans. Japanese aircraft soon followed suit.
If China wanted to force a negotiation, it chose a strange way of doing so. In the end, it only undermined its own interests by irritating Washington, which might now feel compelled to drop the neutral position it long sought to maintain. All of China’s neighbours have similarly been put on edge.
China cannot be allowed to unilaterally assert its claim on the territory. Those B-52 flights aren’t just symbolic. They’re necessary, in the interest of international law. And speaking of international law: Why isn’t this dispute, and others boiling in the South China Sea, before the International Court of Justice, or some mutually agreed-upon arbitrator? The way to avoid war is to settle territorial disagreements peacefully, according to the law. The route of force risks ending badly.