U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday pointed to a "need for crisis management mechanisms" between China and Japan, suggesting that the U.S. is no longer wholly opposed to China's redrawing of air defense identification zones in the region.
Government officials here believe the U.S. has had second thoughts about the seriousness of China's new defense zone, which was declared late last month, and wants to avoid out-and-out conflict with Beijing.
When China initially declared the new zone, where overflying aircraft need to identify themselves, Washington sent B52 bombers to the area.
"It seems that the U.S. has backed off from attempts to reassert the previous state of affairs at all costs and decided to accept China's demands to some extent," a senior government official told the Chosun Ilbo. "The U.S. will never officially recognize China's air defense zone, but now it apparently wants to work out a reasonable compromise.
The new Chinese zone partly overlaps with those of Japan and Korea, which are U.S. allies.
A Foreign Ministry official said, "It seems the U.S. is trying to minimize the risk of conflict rather than insisting on the old zones, having concluded that China is unlikely to back down."
Prof. Chun Jae-sung of Seoul National University said Washington lacks the energy for a prolonged standoff but also needs to support Japan, which has complained bitterly about the Chinese declaration.
The situation is complicated, since no international treaties govern such defense zones and the zones of several countries in Asia overlap. Thus the submerged shelf of Ieo, which is controlled by Korea, is included in both the Chinese and Japanese zones, but what Tokyo is more upset about is the inclusion of the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which are increasingly hotly disputed between the two countries.
"There's a likelihood that the U.S. will mediate between Beijing and Tokyo in such a way as to help them reach a compromise or notify each other of civilian flights or military operations in advance," Chun said.