This Chinese Map Has Everyone Freaking Out

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Nov. 25 2013 12:43 PM

Why Are Japan and America So Concerned About This Map?

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Over the weekend China’s Ministry of National Defense issued the map above establishing what it calls the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. The ministry claims that the zone is “not directed against any specific country or target,” which is a bit hard to buy given that it overlaps significantly with Japan’s air defense zone in the region and includes the disputed islands known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. According to China, all aircraft entering the zone must identify themselves and could possibly be subject to “defensive emergency measures” if they don’t comply with Chinese directives.

Predictably, the establishment of the zone has set off a war of words between the Chinese and Japanese governments. Each country has summoned the other’s ambassador, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also hasn't exactly done all he could to de-escalate the situation over the past year, warned that it “can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well.” Secretary of State John Kerry also weighed in, saying that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the development. In response, China's Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. to “make no more inappropriate remarks" about the zone.

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There are some doubts about whether China actually has the radar capability to enforce the zone, and it’s not quite clear yet whether China actually plans to enforce it or if this is merely a political gesture to placate hardline nationalists who have been agitating for the government to take a make a stronger stand on the island.

Japan scrambled two F-15s to intercept Chinese surveillance planes near the islands on Saturday. Thankfully, the incident was resolved quickly after the Chinese planes turned back, though it was an illustration of how quickly a confrontation over the islands could spin out of control through accident or overreach.

The island dispute doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the U.S., and by and large, Americans don’t care about these uninhabited rocks nearly as much as the parties involved seem to think we do. But like it or not, the U.S. is going to continue to be dragged into the conflict, and given the countries involved and the level of emotions on both sides, it's really a much more dangerous situation than most Americans realize.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.