China’s military forces are showing no signs of increased alert status or readiness for conflict despite high tensions with Japan over Beijing’s air defense zone overlapping U.S. and Japanese air defense coverage of the disputed Senkaku islands.
A senior defense official said U.S. military monitors observed "no unusual military movements" by the Chinese military since the Nov. 23 declaration of the air defense identification zone, which the Pentagon has called "destabilizing."
Imposition of the new air defense zone has sharply increased tensions in East Asia. China has scrambled jets to patrol airspace that includes the Senkakus, which China is claiming. Japan has administered the uninhabited islands since the end of World War II and the U.S. military has pledged to defend the islands on behalf of Japan.
China in recent days has dispatched Su-30, J-11 fighters, and KJ-2000 airborne warning and control aircraft to the zone to follow flights of U.S. and Japanese military surveillance aircraft.
Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew through China’s new air defense zone last week but were not met with Chinese interceptor jets.
Chinese naval forces, meanwhile, launched the first war games exercises in the northern Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea since the ADIZ was imposed.
The eight-day drill was announced in a brief no-sail announcement by China’s maritime administration in Liaoning province.
"The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will carry out military missions in the relevant waters of the Bohai Sea and the Bohai Strait from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm Dec. 5 and 6, 2013," the website of the Liaoning Maritime Safety Administration announced Thursday. "During the above-mentioned period of time, no vessel is allowed to enter the designated maritime areas."
China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed from the northern military port of Qingdao Nov. 26, along with guided missile warships. The flotilla sailed through the Taiwan Strait and into the South China Sea on Nov. 28.
China’s air force currently has 24 JH-7 bombers deployed at an airbase in Weifang, about 80 miles from the port of Qingdao and the airbase closest to Japan, according to Kanwa Defense Review.
The newsletter said the bombers are equipped with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles that could be used against Japanese warships if a conflict erupted between Tokyo and Beijing.
China has indicated that it is preparing to announce a second ADIZ over the South China Sea, where Beijing has been claiming nearly the entire sea as its territory.
Senior Pentagon officials have avoided discussing the possibility of conflict with China. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey have warned that China’s air defense zone increases the risk of a military "miscalculation," code for a shooting incident possibly involving aircraft or warships.
Vice President Joe Biden sought to play down the maritime dispute during a visit to Beijing this week. Biden made no mention of the air defense zone in comments after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
A senior administration official said Biden told Xi during their closed door meetings "that we don’t recognize the zone; that we have deep concerns about it." Biden, however, stopped short of calling on China to roll back the zone.
Japan’s government has called the zone "dangerous" and urged that it be completely lifted.
Japan’s parliament adopted a resolution on Friday urging China to lift the ADIZ.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei continued harsh rhetoric toward Japan in response to the resolution. Hong told reporters in Beijing that the ADIZ is "reasonable and legal" and called Japan’s action "reckless."
"On this issue, Japan has no right to talk nonsense, and China resolutely opposes this. What Japan should be doing at the moment is to stop these kinds of wrong actions, stop quibbling and stop its provocations," he said.
Xi told Biden that China’s new ADIZ is legal and defended its imposition, according to Chinese state-run press reports. "Both sides should keep the bilateral relationship going in the right direction, respect each other's core interests and major concerns, actively expand practical cooperation, and properly handle sensitive issues and differences," Xi told Biden at the meeting, Xinhua reported.
A bipartisan group of United States senators on Thursday wrote to China’s ambassador to the United States to urge China not to implement the ADIZ, calling the action part of a disturbing series of "hostile" maritime actions by China.
"This declaration reinforces the perception that China prefers coercion over rule of law mechanisms to address territorial, sovereignty or jurisdictional issues in the Asia Pacific," wrote four senators, two Democrats and two Republicans.
"It also follows a disturbing trend of increasingly hostile Chinese maritime activities, including repeated incursions by Chinese vessels into the waters and airspace of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the East and South China Seas."
The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) and ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D., Md.) also signed the letter.
"We urge your government not to implement this ADIZ as announced, and to refrain from taking similar provocative actions elsewhere in the region," the senators stated. "There is nothing for China to gain by undermining regional stability and threatening the peace and prosperity that is the shared objective of all Asia Pacific nations."
The South China Morning Post reported Friday that the naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea are the second large-scale drills held by the Chinese in December.
Chinese air forces conducted combined arms air drills, which included live-firing of air-launched missiles, over the East China Sea on Dec. 1.
Similar war games were held from Nov 15 to Nov. 22—a day before Beijing declared the air zone and ordered all aircraft to follow its rules, warning that unspecified "emergency measures" would be taken if aircraft do not comply.
China's communist leadership announced following a major Party meeting that ended Nov. 12 that military forces would be built up.
The final document of the meeting said China’s military must increase war-fighting capabilities, including increased jointness among air, ground, and naval forces.
Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, said China’s close proximity to Japan and the increased speeds of modern long-range anti-ship missiles highlights the need for increased surveillance of Chinese naval exercises by the United States and Japan to ensure that the exercises do not turn into military operations.
"China has a long history of employing military deception," Fisher said. "A large and interesting exercise in the Bohai Sea or South China Sea, or both, may divert enough attention sufficiently to delay warning of scores of submarines loaded with special forces troops leaving for an assault on the Senkaku Islands."
The small size of the islands makes it relatively easy for the Chinese to use submarines or helicopters to deploy commandos on the islands that along with China’s increased air defenses might cause Tokyo and Washington to hesitate in launching a recapture operation.
The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial Friday, criticized the Obama administration for sending mixed signals to the Chinese on the air defense zone.
The newspaper noted that a day after the State Department announced that the ADIZ should not be implemented, Dempsey appeared to condone the implementation.
"That sounds like the only U.S. concern is with the way China is enforcing the defense zone," the Journal said. "This is different from our ally Japan's position, which is that China should roll back the zone entirely."
"So is the zone unacceptable, or is it acceptable as long as there are open lines of communication and crisis-control mechanisms?"
"The risk to peace in the Pacific isn't the lack of ‘channels of communication,’" the editorial stated. "The risk is if the U.S. fails to draw clear lines against Chinese military aggression."