Gaining from China’s air defense zone error

China’s declaration of an air defense zone surrounding disputed islands in the East China Sea could present an opportunity for the US and its Asian friends, particularly in the equally disputed South China Sea region.

Japan and China now claim overlapping air defense zones over the Diaoyu (to China)/Senkaku (to Japan) island chain. China’s claim has proven an embarrassment as the US, Japan and Korea promptly, openly defied it. That led China to scramble jets, even though there are signs the military leadership is far from unanimous in support of the declaration, let alone any escalation. Confrontation over these specks of rock, regardless of their potential, would be foolish for all sides.

One obvious solution is for a multilateral body to oversee the air space. But that would count as a win for China, which would gain from its unilateral and ill-considered declaration. Moreover, the US may not like this idea of informing China and others of its activities in the area due to the volume of espionage flights it runs through there.

The same may be true in the South China Sea. However, in that area, dealing with claims on a multilateral, rather than bilateral basis, is a key goal of the Southeast Asian states. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam fear being overwhelmed by China’s economic and military power in any one-on-one negotiation or confrontation.

A measure of diplomatic creativity that gives China a way to save face over its air defense zone declaration, while forcing it to accept the principle of multilateralism in the full range of maritime disputes, would be a big win for the US and its friends in the region. It would represent a tangible benefit of the Obama administration’s rebalancing of US foreign policy that’s been woefully short on substance. If China rejects such a deal, it would further undermine Beijing’s claims that it seeks peaceful cooperation and stability in the region, not territorial gains. US Vice President Joe Biden, who landed in Beijing hours ago, is a good guy to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad that all can enjoy.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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