Austin Bay
Vice-President Joe Biden's strong reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan alliance is better news following bad. The bad news is what made the American reaffirmation necessary: China's latest act of "barbed wire diplomacy," the extension of its Air Defense Identification Zone to include a disputed chain of Japanese-administered islets northwest of Okinawa.

The Japanese call the disputed islets the Senkakus. The Chinese call them the Diaoyu.

Two names for a territory may simply be colloquial artifacts. When the history is ugly, however, one man's idiom is another man's curse. "Double names" are often the cartographer's mark of lingering animosity between neighboring states. Many Chinese, with good reason, resent Imperial Japan's brutality during World War 2. When Beijing spars with Tokyo, Chinese nationalists applaud -- at least that is one interpretation.

This ADIZ's line of barbs, however, also snagged another major American ally in East Asia. The zone includes a reef claimed by South Korea. Ay, there's the rub.

Official U.S. policy is to bridge the animosity. The U.S. recognizes current Japanese authority, but wants China and Japan to solve the dispute peacefully. However, an ADIZ involves air defense, which involves a military threat. Aircraft entering a recognized ADIZ must identify themselves to the national air controllers. If they fail to do so, they may go down in flames.

Implicit armed threat is another rub -- for Washington. Last week, after China declared the new ADIZ, the Obama Administration tested it, vigorously. Two un-armed B-52s flew through the zone. The bombers did not identify themselves to Chinese air controllers; Chinese interceptors didn't disturb them.

Bluff called and miscalculation revealed?

After the B-52 sorties, Washington told U.S. civilian aircraft to recognize the ADIZ. If the flinch is defensible as caution and a diplomatic gesture to China, Japan ordered its civilian aircraft to ignore the ADIZ completely.

Hasty miscalculation by Chinese nationalists remains the Obama Administration's preferred explanation for the ADIZ.

In Tokyo this week (on his way to visit Chinese president Xi Jinping), Vice-President Biden told Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the U.S. firmly supports Japan's rejection of China's claim. "The U.S. and Japanese security liaison," Biden said, "is the cornerstone, not merely in the Pacific region, but the cornerstone on which our security is built for the next 20 years." Biden's statement reaffirmed an economic and geo-strategic fact. The U.S. sees Japan as an essential global security partner, not a Pacific Ocean trip wire.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate