Trouble in the East China Sea

November 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Wall Street Journal’s John Bussey gives us the context behind the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over a group of islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea. Under a treaty the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan against any attack on a territory the country administers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You might not have been paying especially close attention to the news the past couple of days. So you might have missed what many believe is a serious escalation of tensions in the Pacific between some of the great powers of the world — China on one side and Japan and the United States on the other. It’s all about a dispute between Japan and China over control of five very small islands in the East China Sea.

The story is especially relevant for American viewers because the islands are administered by Japan. And under a treaty, the United States is obligated to defend Japan against any attack on territory it administers.

For more about all of this, we are joined now by John Bussey. He is the assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Earlier in his career, he was the newspaper’s foreign editor and before that, he was its Tokyo correspondent.

So why do these five island matter so much to China and Japan?

JOHN BUSSEY: They are in the East China Sea. They have unknown oil and gas deposits beneath them. They are the government trade routes for whoever has authority over them. They are kind of significant from a geographical standpoint, and an energy standpoint and an emotional standpoint for both of these countries. China says they are way too far from Japan to be part of Japan. Japan says look we’ve administered them for years, they’re ours.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the latest in this round of escalation that’s been happening. China sent fighter jets, scrambled them, to make sure the Japanese jets and U.S. jets that are in that airspace aren’t going there?

JOHN BUSSEY: So Japan has been administering the islands and China claims their as their own. So China has declared a defense identification zone that incorporate the islands essentially into the security of China. Anyone who flies there must submit a flight path agreement to China. They must also identify themselves far in advance and must hue to whatever China says they must do in the air.  So if you’re flying in and they say “take a left” you have to take a left. The U.S. says “no way” and they flew some B52s through there, Japan did the same and South Korea has done the same thing.

The commercial carriers are being more cautious. Some in Asia have already started submitting their flight plans to China even though that is seen by the national governments as kowtowing to the Chinese demands.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So if there’s a U.S. aircraft that you’re on and they are flying overseas are they giving the flight plans to China as if its already their territory?

JOHN BUSSEY: Just yesterday the United States advised the carriers to provide those flight plans. I think what the U.S. wants to avoid is any escalation that leads to a mistake. If China is scrambling jets, as it now is, to tag along with some of the military planes that are wandering through the zone. Now, this is a very heavily trafficked area – if you are going to fly from Hong Kong to Japan you are going to fly through it. International flights and all the regional flights have to go through it. What the U.S. doesn’t want to have happen is there to be a mistake. And there have been mistakes in the past. A Chinese fighter jet in 2001 hit a U.S. surveillance craft, supposedly in international air space the U.S. claimed; the Chinese said you’re just too close to our coast.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So Vice President Biden heading to the region this coming week. What does the Obama administration say about all of this?

JOHN BUSSEY: The U.S. has said ‘this is unacceptable. You are being way too provocative. It’s escalating tensions in the region.’ For China they is playing into Japan’s hands because Japan wants to strengthen its military; wants to change its constitution; is now seeking domestic support for that. This is going to create more domestic support for that. It’s also going to alienate China from its regional role and the strength that it wanted to project to its  neighbors and the friendliness that it wanted to project. It’s going to enhance the U.S. position in the region as an alternative to China. I think a lot of these countries are going to be very happy that the U.S. has a presence in Asia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the real risks here of all this sabre rattling?

JOHN BUSSEY: I think it is an escalation that you don’t expect. If you are looking at the blogs in China there is a great deal inherent nationalism that China’s feeling because of its substantial economic success of the last 30 years reflected in its relations as well. So they bloggers are saying ‘get those flights out of the – get those B52s out of there.’ So Chinese are playing to a nationalistic domestic audience. They are trying to play with the international audience and seem flexible. But if there are fight jets in the air and they are dogging each other there could be a mistake and that’s what the U.S. and Japan are particularly concerned about.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John Bussey from The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

JOHN BUSSEY:  My pleasure.