Comments by the leaders of Japan and the Philippines drawing parallels between China’s growing assertiveness in the region and events in pre-war Europe are “not helpful,” said the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific.
“The rise of Germany and what occurred between the U.K. in particular and Germany, and what happened in Europe, I don’t draw that comparison at all to what’s going on today” in the Asia-Pacific, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, 58, said in an interview today in Singapore. “Some of the things, in particular that have been done by Japan, they need to think hard about what is provocative to other nations.”
The recent comments by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino -- two U.S. allies -- have escalated tensions at a time when China is pushing its territorial claims in both the East and South China Seas, and as President Xi Jinping expands the reach of his country’s navy. Both sought to cast China’s actions against the historical perspective of Germany’s ascension in the first half of the 20th century.
“The de-escalation of tensions has got to be a multilateral approach and it’s not just one country that needs to de-escalate,” said General Carlisle, a former fighter squadron commander who is responsible for air force operations for more than half the globe, with oversight of 45,000 aircrew. “All of them do. The risk from miscalculation is high. It’s greater than it should be.”
Abe said in Switzerland late last month that Germany and the U.K. went to war despite strong economic ties, and warned Japan and China must avoid a similar fate. In an interview with the New York Times published Feb. 5, Aquino called on nations to support the Philippines in defending its territory in the South China Sea, drawing a parallel with the West’s failure to back Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.
China and Japan haven’t held a summit since Abe took office in December 2012. Protests broke out in China in late 2012 after Japan bought some of the disputed East China Sea islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from a private owner. China in November set up an air defense zone in the area, demanding civil and military aircraft present flight plans before entering the space. In December, Abe roiled ties by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead including 14 World War II military leaders convicted as Class-A criminals.
“If you look at some of the things that have been going on in the East China Sea, both militaries have been conducting themselves very professionally,” said Carlisle. “But the potential for something, a mistake to occur or miscalculation or misunderstanding to occur, is out there. There is significantly more activity from both nations around the disputed territorial claims, and that to me is a risk.”
Any attempt by China to replicate its air zone in the South China Sea would be a “very provocative act,” said Carlisle, who has more than 3,600 flying hours in a variety of aircraft and was promoted to the rank of general in August 2012, according to his official Air Force profile.
The U.S. opposes any such move and “we’ve strongly, through diplomatic channels, made that known to the PRC,” Carlisle said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Feb. 1 dismissed as “speculation” a report by Japanese newspaper Asahi that China also plans a zone in waters rich in fish, oil and gas that are subject to competing claims from countries such as China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, and home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
China introduced fishing rules last month requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast. The South China Sea is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would account for about one-third of China’s oil and gas resources, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Policing any air zone over the South China Sea would require China to shift some of its forces, which are now predominantly on the east coast of China, Carlisle said.
“There’s less of an established force today in the south,” he said. “The numbers it would take to patrol that size of air space, they would have to shift some of their force. Whether they do that or not, I couldn’t tell you. The capability of their systems to range the entire South China Sea does exist.”
In December China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, returned from an initial training mission in the South China Sea. Its drills triggered diplomatic tensions after a Chinese vessel cut in front of the USS Cowpens guided-missile cruiser from a distance of 100 yards in the area on Dec. 5, an incident U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was “irresponsible.”
China is already building its second aircraft carrier to be completed in 2018, the South China Morning Post reported Jan. 19, citing a regional Communist Party chief. Even so, China is some way from combat-readiness for the Liaoning, Carlisle said.
“What the U.S. Navy does with an aircraft carrier is simply amazing,” he said. “That is a lot of years of experience and training and understanding. The ability to actually got out on a carrier, conduct operations and be effective and become air ready on an aircraft carrier is not an easy task. It’s going to take some work from the PRC to get to that.”
China expanded military spending 10.7 percent to 740.6 billion yuan ($122 billion) in 2013, while Abe, who is seeking to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow his country’s troops to defend allies, plans a second consecutive rise in Japan’s defense budget. China is expected to release its military spending figure for the year at the National People’s Congress in early March.
“Everything we see with respect to the PRC spending, from my perspective, is their ability to continue to project power, more than they have in the past,” Carlisle said. “They’re continuing to go after less in the defensive nature and more on their ability to get power outwards. You see that in their air force too with respect to their ability to use their aircraft carrier, their ability with long-range bombers, their ability with fighter aircraft.”
China’s air force is fielding new precision-guided cruise missiles, long-range bombers and drones, according to U.S. military intelligence officials. “While we would not characterize the modernization as accelerated,” it’s “progressing at a steady pace,” Lee Fuell, a director at the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said in a presentation released Jan. 30.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is becoming “better,” Carlisle said. “The PLAF is a very capable air force and they are getting more capable all the time.”