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Chance of China/Japan conflict growing, warns former State Department official

December 3rd, 2013
04:14 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

Tensions between China and Japan, at their worst in half a century, are making conflict “much more likely now than it’s probably been in years,” the former top U.S. State Department official for East Asia told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

If a conflict were to break out, Kurt Campbell said, it would likely be a “small skirmish, probably easily contained.”

But the larger context, of "what is really the two great countries of Asia, China and Japan" is hard to ignore.

"Tensions between the two countries are greater now than they've been probably in a half century."

The two countries have long been loggerheads over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea – the Chinese call them Diaoyu and the Japanese call them Senkaku.

The heat was turned up, however, when China declared an “Air Defense Identification Zone” over the chain of islands.

The U.S. military responded by sending two unarmed B-52 bombers through the heart of the contested airspace.

America must make clear to China, Campbell said, that the drawing of a military air zone “is deeply provocative.”

“This is a recipe for the kind of incident that we saw in 1983,” he said, when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

The U.S. has refused to recognize China air defense zone, but has nonetheless advised civilian aircraft flying through the area to notify the Chinese government.

That advice made the Japanese, with whom the U.S. has a military defense treaty, none too happy.

The U.S., Campbell said, has “two imperatives” – one military, and one civilian.

On the military side, he said, the U.S. was very clear that it would not acknowledge China’s new declared air defense zone.

But “civilian airspace monitors,” he said, “have a different set of metrics, and their prime directive is to avoid a mishap in the air.”

“Their initial guidance was apolitical in that sense,” he said. “But I think the problem is that it has created a little bit of incoherence.”

Campbell told Amanpour that he expected that Vice President Joe Biden to clarify the U.S. position. He met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday and was set to talk with the Chinese leadership later in the week.

The U.S. military will continue to operate in China’s declared zone, Campbell said, as it long had.

But he added that he thought there would be “some clarifications” to the guidance from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration “in the coming days or weeks that will make clear that we do not recognize this zone, but certain kinds of communication protocols will be followed to avoid a problem.”

“It’s imperfect, but given where we are that is the best we can do.”

In a larger sense, Campbell said, Biden will have to convince China and Japan to cool their heels.

“This is the cockpit of the global economy,” he said. “They are fighting over a barren rock in a distant part of the Pacific. Now I know it represents larger, sort of nationalist identities and the like, but these problems have existed for decades.”

The key is to “recognize that both countries have much bigger stakes than struggling over the identity of an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”

Filed under:  China • Christiane Amanpour • Japan • Latest Episode
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Jay

    This is the just the beginning. If China is appeased in Senkaku they will expand "air defense zones" throughout the region inevitably following up with full territorial claims. A strong message needs to be sent to stop this aggressive expansionism before matters get out of hand.

    December 3, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
    • Rashid al Shukri

      Your comment is baseless.

      December 4, 2013 at 1:43 am | Reply
      • Jay

        Baseless... really? You obviously haven't been keeping up with events, ie the nine-dash line, claiming parts of the Philippine archipalego, erecting military installation in contested waters.

        December 4, 2013 at 1:55 am |
      • joe salonga

        Baseless? Which country are you from? Does your government pre-screen outside news just like the Chinese does? Why dont you come down here in Manila and see for yourself. There are chinese Navy warships building up along the spratly islands. China needs to realize that messing up with the US and its allies is a big NO NO.
        Chinese probably knows what "KABOOM" means.

        December 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Alex

      CNN! Amanpoure and your other women–"politicians" are very good for commenting cooking and kitchen news.
      Real Politics always done by Men.

      December 4, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
      • Dash

        joe salonga – hey. let me be clear.

        your people, philipino have refused to stay U.S navy in your country. should i remind you?

        and your people also ignored arrogance of china which has made this situation.

        you don't have any right to talk about this happening

        December 5, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  2. jonuney

    I think it will be fare for China to have this airzone If everyone look from general and historical point of view .

    December 4, 2013 at 12:40 am | Reply
    • NotAmerican

      Multiplying to 1.35 billlion people does not give you the right to claim the resources and territory of neighbouring countries. I recommend the Chinese to start using condoms and stay in China otherwise the World will have to deal with problem of overpopulation in China.

      December 4, 2013 at 2:51 am | Reply
      • XMX

        You do understand that each family is only allowed to have 1 child at most right? They don't have an overpopulation problem because they have too many children, it's because they have been around so long and it builds up.

        December 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  3. kota Bato

    Anything that has China written on it China will claim as theirs. East China sea is theirs and South China sea is theirs too. That why the Philippines changed South China sea to West Philippines sea.

    December 4, 2013 at 12:49 am | Reply
    • vincent

      ya! At least China only claim those with the word "CHINA' on it.but the USA claim the whole world no matter they have or have no U-S-A.

      December 4, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
      • FrmeMrine

        And when did that happen?

        December 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
      • scrut

        well said

        December 9, 2013 at 9:43 am |
    • TasneemPati

      If it is so China will rename Pacific Ocean to China Ocean.

      December 4, 2013 at 1:45 am | Reply
      • vincent

        Too bad! Pacific have no China word on it and USA already claimed the whole ocean to be under USA INFLUENCE.

        December 4, 2013 at 2:30 am |
      • mxnm2006

        You should look back in the history before you make any ignorant comments. Bro!

        December 4, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  4. Asadullah khan

    is not there international law to draw boundries in the the sea it is 3000 nautical miles and in case of hot persuit perhaps more.pakistan should be anxios about the developments in view of its special relations with china,

    December 4, 2013 at 1:16 am | Reply
    • FrmeMrine

      3000 nautical miles? Really? I think you're wrong there, pal.

      December 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  5. Roger

    Once again the USA sticking it nose in where it DOES NOT BELONG.

    December 4, 2013 at 2:06 am | Reply
    • scrut

      Unfortunately. And as usual, making things worse that way...

      December 9, 2013 at 9:43 am | Reply
  6. Frans

    Why don't you, people, do something usefull ?
    Get a decent job.. Instead of these stupid comments.
    You have know idea ,what you are talking about...

    December 4, 2013 at 7:29 am | Reply
    • Sven De Laer.

      Nee jij trekt volle zalen.

      December 4, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  7. alpha kappa rho

    i think its time to prepare for war...all countries against china...i would gladly give my life to fight back what belongs to the philippines...happy to kill chinese that in accord with their government

    December 4, 2013 at 7:41 am | Reply
    • PanzerJager

      I didn't work during the Korean war it won't work now. They have millions of people to throw at possible invaders.

      December 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Reply
    • mxnm2006

      Beware that you will get what you've asked for: to die for your country.
      All of you bashing China and criticizing Chinese claim of these regions in South China Sea should all go back and read the history. Many of those islands were owned by China ever since Ming or Yuang Dynasty, long before the Phillipines was a country.

      December 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Reply
      • joe salonga

        Which history? Maybe in a parallel universe? I'm sorry, I don't care if you're chinese or not but you're pretty damn stupid. Don't give me that history lesson BS of yours. Ming Dynasty, Sak Mai Shlong Dynasty, never in ANY history books (maybe in a book written by a chinese) says that the philippines, indonesia and australia were chinese territory back then. And you chinese people dont follow rules, i see a flock of chinese tourist everyday here in the US , cutting in lines, ignoring posted warning signs(even in chinese). You guys need to learn how to respect and follow rules.

        December 4, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  8. Zen

    There's a saying that says, "Power Corrupts, But – TOO MUCH POWER – SELF-DISTRUCTS, " So be it.

    December 4, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
  9. ashok

    A nation that has been transformed beyond recognition by the benefits of globalisation must recognise that there are political and diplomatic responsibilities that come with that process, of being a mature stake holder. It cannot treat its neighbourhood like the Serengeti, where might is right.

    December 4, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  10. mandingo

    ' police!

    December 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  11. Sven De Laer.

    Something must be done. They seem to think Obama is not going to do anything, an assumption that will backfire on their behinds. Fire at will I say. Fire at will.

    December 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  12. Sven De Laer.

    Respect our free world boundaries or face the consequences.

    December 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  13. mxnm2006


    December 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  14. WISEUP

    The bottom line, US has to block everyone off the Pacific Ocean. At what price?

    December 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Reply
    • scrut

      No, the US should stay out because it is none of their business.

      December 9, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply
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