China’s military imposed a destabilizing air defense zone over the East China Sea without consulting the United States, and top Pentagon leaders said Wednesday there have been no contacts with their Chinese counterparts since the zone was set up Nov. 23.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference at the Pentagon that the Chinese air zone is destabilizing the region.
However, both leaders declined to urge China to roll back the air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, as Japan’s government has demanded of the Chinese.
The lack of U.S.-China consultation and communication highlights what observers say is a failure of three decades of exchanges aimed at building trust between the two militaries.
"I have not spoken to my Chinese counterpart. I've spoken to our allies about the Chinese ADIZ," Hagel said.
Dempsey said he attempted to contact the People’s Liberation Army chief of staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui.
"I have actually reached out to the schedulers to connect me with my Chinese counterpart," Dempsey said. "I suspect it'll occur following the vice president's visit."
Vice President Joe Biden met with top Chinese leaders in Beijing on Wednesday, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to discuss the air defense zone.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated that the administration is opposing the new air zone as a "highly provocative" act by China. She would not say whether Biden demanded that the Chinese rescind the zone.
"The policy hasn’t changed from the beginning to now, that we don’t believe that the Chinese should implement the new ADIZ," she said. "We don’t recognize it."
"This is, we’ve said, a highly provocative act that could lead to miscalculation and confrontation," she added.
Asked what was behind China’s asserting control over large areas of Pacific Ocean airspace, Hagel said: "I don’t know."
Instead, the defense secretary urged continuing to focus on efforts by Dempsey and the military services chiefs to develop stronger military-to-military relations with the Chinese.
"We have been working at that, both sides, actually," Hagel said, noting recent meetings with China’s defense minister.
"We are working toward a stronger relationship to build some mechanisms to address some of these tension issues, which probably are not going to get any less complicated, in the East and South China Sea," Hagel said.
Hagel then said the maritime disputes with China are "combustible issues."
"It's important for China, Japan, South Korea, all the nations in this area, to stay calm and responsible," he said, noting "this is a time when we need to carefully, all of us, work through some of these differences."
All nations have a stake in preserving free sea lanes and the United States will work diplomatically to foster stability in the region, Hagel said.
Asked if the zone should be rolled back, Hagel sidestepped the question. "Well, I think that we've made it pretty clear what our position is, the United States, on this."
The State Department also has failed to call on China to lift the air defense zone. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that China should "rescind" the air defense rule, something short of lifting the zone completely.
In Beijing, senior administration officials told reporters that Biden met with Xi a total of five and half hours and laid out the U.S. position opposing the air defense zone.
"We indicated to the Chinese not only our deep concerns in sort of how we look at the air defense identification zone, but we also made clear that not just the United States, but other countries as well are looking at them to take steps to lower tensions, and that includes avoiding enforcement actions that really could lead to a crisis," one official said.
Asked what the administration believes was behind China's creation of the ADIZ, another official said: "Our assessment is that this was not a recent knee-jerk thing; it's part of a longstanding effort by China to protect its sovereignty and its territorial integrity, which is a well-known, self-described core interest that Xi Jinping himself feels very strongly about."
Hagel said he does not regard the ADIZ as the main problem; it is China’s failure to consult prior to imposing it.
"The biggest concern that we have is how it was done so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation," he said. "That's not a wise course of action to take for any country."
Dempsey also said the zone does not represent a claim by China to "sovereign airspace of the zone that extends several hundred miles north and south and about 80 miles wide."
"We're talking about international air space, adjacent to sovereign air space," Dempsey said.
International norms require only that aircraft that intend to overfly Chinese national territory should report their flight path, he said.
"So it wasn't the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing, it was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report, regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign air space of China. And that is destabilizing," Dempsey said.
Randy Schriver, a former assistant secretary of state and deputy assistant defense secretary involved in China policy, said the Chinese imposition of the air zone showed that military exchanges have not produced results.
"This provocation on the part of the Chinese was done without any prior consultation with the U.S. government, to include the U.S. military," Schriver said in an email. "This belies the viewpoint that our extensive military-to-military exchanges over the last few decades has built mutual trust and improved bilateral communications. It’s clear that our investment in building ties with the PLA does not pay off when it truly matters."
Meanwhile, Hagel was asked about a news report that the Obama administration is reaching out to Islamist rebels in Syria. In response, Hagel said, "That’s not my area that I deal with, the diplomatic track, every day on this."
However, Hagel said a diplomatic resolution of the Syria conflict would require all parties involved in the conflict.
Dempsey said it is important to know whether Islamist rebels are "moderate and inclusive" or "radical and exclusive."
"So I think finding that out, however we do so, is worth the effort," Dempsey said.
Hagel said it is not clear that al Qaeda’s influence is increasing in Syria and he noted that some groups brand themselves as al Qaeda but that "whether they actually align themselves with al Qaeda's global terrorist ideology is another issue."
"I mean, we're still learning about some of these groups," Hagel said.
Hagel announced in the beginning of the press conference that he is planning to cut staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a result of the forced Budget Control Act, known as sequestration.
The staff will be reduced by 20 percent and the cost savings could total $1 billion over five years.