China's move to establish an air defense zone over a series of disputed islands in the East China Sea is being viewed by experts as a bold power play by Beijing and a reminder that China is quickly emerging as a military force in southeast Asia.
The Chinese have formally claimed the airspace above the Senkaku Islands, a territory that has long been a source of dispute between China and Japan, although Tokyo has served as the island's administrator for years.
American military planes have already violated the space, a message of defiance to Beijing. But according to Yun Sun, a fellow with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, China's unexpected aggressiveness in seizing the air space has given the Chinese the upper hand in the dispute.
"It was assertive, a little but unnecessarily so, with China sticking its nose in everyone's face," she said. "For China to unilaterally to declare at a sensitive time and as tension has been escalating has been perceived to be unnecessarily bold."
Vice President Joe Biden expressed concern over China's actions with Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday. However, Xi refused to back down, saying that China had a right to claim the airspace.
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Now, there is a growing fear that China's claim could escalate to a full-blown military confrontation. China now claims the legal right to fire on any plane that enters this airspace unannounced. If that happens, Sun said she fears that it could lead to a broader conflict.
"Everyone has been worried about the chance of miscalculation and the chance of a small skirmish escalating into a major confrontation," she said. "People don't necessarily think China or Japan intends to start a war. But in such a crowded area, there are so many planes, so many vessels. A small mistake could lead to a major military confrontation."
"We hope that people in Beijing and Tokyo are not aiming for a war," she said.