On Saturday, China unilaterally claimed a swath of the airspace over the disputed South China Sea as an “air-defense identification zone." The move was widely considered provocative, and now, two days later, two American B-52 bomber jets violated Beijing's new terms by flying through the airspace without registering their flight plans and communication frequencies.
America had already pretty much laughed off China's claim to the airspace. “We will not in any way change how we conduct our operations,” Army Colonel Steve Warren had clarified to Bloomberg.
The intrusion is kind of a big deal, and it's unclear how Beijing might respond to what it might see as an intrusion of its airspace. On Nov. 23, Beijing had declared that its military forces would take “defensive emergency measures" against unannounced aircrafts. (No word on whether America plans to laugh that one off, too.)
The incident is a spinoff of a decades-long dispute over the tiny, uninhabited Sendaku/Diaoyu islands, which have been claimed by both China and Japan with increasing ferocity over the past few years. Thus far, America, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan in the case of war, has been reluctant to get involved. The U.S. has declined to take a position on the “ultimate sovereignty” of the islands — but on Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel labelled China’s announcement a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”
The U.S. involvement could be a shift in line of priorities in the American "Pivot to Asia," and may be a signal that the Obama administration will no longer willing to stand by as tensions mount in the Pacific. In fact, America has already begun to hint at supporting the Japanese.
“Since [the islands] are under Japan’s administrative control,” said Hagel said during a Tokyo visit in October, “they fall under United States' treaty obligations to Japan.”
Now, Monday's B-52 act may “trigger unpredictable events,” according to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Hagel said that “the unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
Or, as TIME magazine puts it: "China’s Restriction on Airspace Over Disputed Islets Could Lead to War." OK, that ominous headline may or may not be overly alarmist — but what seems certain is that tensions are rising when it comes to the South China Sea.