Unarmed USAF B-52s flew into China’s Senakaku ADIZ from Guam, according to the BBC. The NYT and the Washington Post report the same thing.
“We have conducted operations in the area of the Senkakus,” said US Colonel Steve Warren.
“We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.”
He added that so far there had been no response from China.
The aircraft, which were unarmed, had taken off from Guam on Monday and the flight was part of a regular exercise in the area, a US defence official said.
The US – which has more than 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea – had previously said it would not abide by the “destabilising” Chinese-imposed zone.
These developments have an eerie resemblance to the Cuban Missile crisis, which readers will recall, was precipitated by Krushchev’s perception of JFK’s weakness at the Vienna Summit of 1961.
Kennedy later said of Khrushchev, “He beat the hell out of me” and told New York Times reporter James ‘Scotty’ Reston it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me”. Kennedy’s performance at the summit encouraged Khrushchev to think afterwards that the United States leader was politically lightweight, a perception that may have caused the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
The Soviet leader had backed Kennedy into a corner and did not anticipate the response. In a reverse mirror image of the Senkaku crisis, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba. Today, 50 years later, it is the US which is insisting on freedom of navigation.
While the tense negotiations were taking place, several Soviet ships attempted to run the blockade, increasing tensions to the point that orders were sent out to US Navy ships to fire warning shots and then open fire. On October 27, a U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet missile crew, an action that could have resulted in immediate retaliation from the Kennedy crisis cabinet, according to Secretary of Defense McNamara’s later testimony. Kennedy stayed his hand and the negotiations continued.
The confrontation ended on October 28, 1962, when Kennedy and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant reached an agreement with Khrushchev. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba. Secretly, the US also agreed that it would dismantle all US-built Jupiter IRBMs, armed with nuclear warheads, which were deployed in Turkey and Italy against the Soviet Union.
Nor is the US alone. Japan announced that it is sending airline flights through Beijing’s ADIZ. “ANA Holdings Inc. (9202) and Japan Airlines Co. (9201), the country’s two biggest carriers, said they would stop reporting flight plans for planes traveling through a new Chinese air-defense zone that Japan rejects.”
ANA and JAL said they would halt the sharing of the flight-plan data starting today, spokesmen said by phone. The carriers shifted their stance on instructions from Japan’s airline trade group, which acted as an intermediary between the airlines and Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau, Maho Ito, an ANA spokeswoman, said by telephone.
China’s action may escalate the situation and lead to unforeseen events, Abe told a parliamentary committee, saying that he was very concerned. “We urge China to revoke this measure, which is in no way binding on Japan.”
Australia has chimed in, summoning the Chinese ambassador to convey its opinion that “the timing and the manner of China’s announcement are unhelpful in light of current regional tensions, and will not contribute to regional stability.”
The ball is now in Beijing’s court. Japan and the US may privately extend a conciliatory hand in order to mitigate the public challenge to China. Perhaps diplomats will negotiate some concession to Beijing to sugar-coat this challenge. But the pushback had to come; the only question is when that would happen. In claiming the right to intercept aircraft over the Senkakus China had thrown down a challenge that the other Pacific powers could not ignore.
There maybe other implicit messages whose subtext we cannot know. Interception is one of the most time critical missions an airforce can face. For the Chinese to successflly intercept aircraft over the Senkakus there had to be PLA aircraft sufficiently near enough to do the job. Even ordinarily they would have been hard pressed to meet a fleeting target.
But the B-52 transit of the ADIZ may have demonstrated the extent of American situational awareness; the real-time awareness of the location of China’s air assets. If the US can see temporal holes in China’s defense architecture, then it can slip bombers or anything else through those gaps like a boxer in Matrix-like Bullet Time who can strike through his opponents blocks.
The Black Box may be mighter than the steel, at least for now. Or maybe Obama sent the unarmed B-52s trusting to luck. At present the Chinese can’t know which and that at least will give them pause.
The Senkaku incident reminds everyone of something that is often forgotten. If something cannot continue indefinitely then it won’t. Authoritarians emboldened by their success must always remember reality is out there. China may be powerful, but it still lives on the planet earth. It cannot at present successfully impose its will on Japan, the US, Korea and Australia while joined in concert. At least, not without grave risk.
The Senkaku incident should also serve as a warning to the West. A crisis is best avoided by never giving the appearance of weakness in the first place. The Cuban Missile crisis could have led to a nuclear war. The door the Vienna summit opened could have led anywhere. We won’t always be that lucky.
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