The B-52s Reply to Beijing

The U.S. sends a military message of support for Japan and global norms.


The Obama Administration isn’t known for its displays of American resolve, but on Tuesday it did U.S. allies in Asia and the cause of global security a service by sending a pair of B-52 bombers over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The planes, which took off from a U.S. base in Guam, deliberately entered a new Chinese Ministry of Defense Zone without informing Beijing. On Saturday China announced the new defense zone that includes the Senkaku Islands that belong to Japan but are claimed by Beijing. The announcement was a clear attempt to intimidate Japan while sending a message to the world, and it fits the pattern of China’s increasingly aggressive military actions in both the East and South China Seas that risk an armed clash.

The U.S., Japan and other nations also have air defense identification zones in which planes entering their airspace must declare themselves, but there is a key difference here. China declared its intention to challenge planes and demand that they follow instructions in the new zone regardless of whether they intend to enter Chinese airspace or are merely transiting through the area.

This is an attempt to interfere with the normal rules of global navigation and assert de facto Chinese control over a huge chunk of the Western Pacific. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel immediately condemned the move as an attempt to change by force the status quo over the Senkakus. Mr. Kerry also noted the threat to freedom of navigation. China responded by telling the U.S. to butt out, so sending the B-52s was necessary to underscore that the U.S. will not let China’s declaration stand.

Beijing’s brinksmanship is reminiscent of its frequent harassment of U.S. naval vessels in international waters and the buzzing by Chinese fighters of U.S. EP-3 surveillance planes that caused a collision in 2001. Beijing is trying to make its exclusive economic zone into a no-go area for foreign military ships and aircraft. This is a serious violation of international law that must be resisted if U.S. security guarantees and President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia are going to have any credibility.

China could now decide to escalate, but it is less likely to do so if the U.S. shows it is willing to defend its allies and global norms. Beijing engaged in a similar display of intimidation toward Taiwan in 1996 by staging missile tests as the Clinton Administration initially wrung its hands. Only after Bill Clinton dispatched two U.S. carrier battle groups to the area did the crisis ease.

Beijing is a master of bully-and-bluff tactics, pushing adversaries into a position where they must choose between capitulation or conflict. But it may have overreached this time, since the new zone all but obliged the U.S. and Japan to respond. The U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend Japan if it is attacked, and the best way to avoid having to do so is to make clear to Beijing that the U.S. takes the treaty seriously.

By trying to use force to seize control over the Senkakus’ region, Beijing is edging closer to naked aggression. It has to be shown that such bullying won’t succeed.

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