A SIMMERING territorial and maritime dispute in Asia erupted at the weekend as Washington warned Beijing it would back Japan militarily in any confrontation arising from China’s latest unilateral assertion of its claims.

The Obama administration weighed in after China moved to in effect “rope off” the seas and skies around the disputed Japanese-administered Senkaku islands in the east China Sea.

In a tough statement reflecting the surprise and alarm felt in Washington and Tokyo at China’s perceived sudden escalation of the dispute, Chuck Hagel, defence secretary, said the US was “deeply concerned” at the development, in which China appears to be trying to control who can enter and leave the area.

The imposition of the zone was a “destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region”, Hagel said. “This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations ... We are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan. We remain steadfast in our commitments.”

Hagel reminded Beijing that the remote Senkaku islands, known as Diaoyu in China, are covered by the 1952 US-Japan security treaty, under which the US is committed to fighting alongside Japan to repel any “common danger”.

Washington’s swift intervention showed just how easily a little local difficulty in the volatile east Asian region could potentially trigger a superpower clash. The Senkaku stand-off is but one of several similar disputes pitting a more assertive China against its less powerful neighbours.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan (all US allies) are — like Japan — enmeshed in arguments with Beijing over relatively obscure but potentially strategic bits of maritime real estate.

These numerous flashpoints have led the Japanese government to describe the regional security environment as “increasingly severe”. In response, Tokyo has been busily building up mutual defence and security ties across south-east Asia, and with Australia and India, as a hedge against Beijing.

For its part, China has sought to enlist Laos, Cambodia, North Korea and Myanmar as de facto buffer states while projecting itself as a rival to the US as a “blue-water” Pacific power.

Japan has denounced the zone set up by China on Nov 23 as “totally unacceptable”, and indicated that aircraft from its self-defence force would ignore Beijing’s attempt to oblige aeroplanes to obtain its permission before entering.

Fumio Kishida, foreign minister, warned that China’s action “could well lead to an unforeseen situation”. He called the development “very dangerous”. Hagel said that US forces in the Pacific theatre, including those based in Japan and South Korea, would also ignore China’s strictures.

The Chinese government-run Xinhua news agency published map co-ordinates for what it called the “East China sea air defence identification zone” covering most of the sea and the skies over the islands. It said China’s armed forces would take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that failed to identify themselves properly or follow its radio instructions.

Xinhua claimed the “air zone could contribute to regional peace and security by curbing the increasing rampancy of Japan’s right-wing forces, as well as the continuous and dangerous provocations of Japanese politicians, which even Washington should be vigilant against”.

The statement was an apparent reference to Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative prime minister, who was elected last December on a platform of standing up for Japan’s rights. Abe, who says he is intent on making a “proactive contribution to peace”, has been denounced in China and South Korea as a reckless nationalist and historical revisionist.

Although China and Japan share two-way trade worth $250bn a year and maintain many other bilateral links, Abe and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, have yet to hold a summit meeting, and other high-level contacts remain frozen.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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