Despite the fact that the purported ‘peaceful rise’ of China was never peaceful and conversely extremely violent, it would be prudent for China to keep its territorial ambitions in check for the sake of peace and prosperity of the region.
Despite the fact that the purported ‘peaceful rise’ of China was never peaceful and conversely extremely violent, it would be prudent for China to keep its territorial ambitions in check for the sake of peace and prosperity of the region including its own and the world at large.
ON NOVEMBER 23, 2013, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) declared China’s first ever air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over a broad area in the East China Sea that overlapped the airspace over the Senkaku group of islands. The Chinese action has thus added a new dimension of possible violence in an already tense region after China arbitrarily extended its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) completely disregarding its neighbours.
Senkaku group of Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands in Mainland China or Diaoyutai Islands in Taiwan is a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and Far East (ECAFE) identified potential oil and gas reserves in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands in 1969. The Chinese and Taiwanese Governments officially began to declare ownership of the islands in 1972. Challenging Japan’s sovereignty over them has been disputed by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) following the transfer of administration from the US to Japan in 1972. The Chinese now claim the discovery and control of the islands from the 14th century but Japan controlled the islands from 1895 until its surrender at the end of World War II. The US administered Senkaku from 1945 until 1972, when the islands reverted to Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement between the United States and Japan. On September 11, 2012, Japan nationalised its control over the islands by purchasing them from the Kurihara family of Japan for ¥2.05 billion but China objected to the deal, claiming that these islands are Chinese territory.
The Chinese Challenge
The PLAAF declared that all non-commercial aircraft entering a broad zone over the East China Sea must first identify themselves to Beijing at the risk of facing “defensive emergency measures” by PLAAF. The ADIZ covers the famous eight uninhabited islands, implying Japanese aircraft flying around those islands would need to submit their flight plans to China and if ‘granted permission’ would still need to maintain radio communication with Chinese authorities:
China apparently hoped to achieve multiple objectives: first, challenge the sovereignty of Japan over the islands; second, bring international focus on Chinese claim over the area; third, provoke Japan to test its reaction; fourth, test the JapanUS alliance and fifth, test global reaction to declare more ADIZ in line with its arbitrarily expanding EEZ claims—China having already announced that more Chinese ADIZ would follow.
This Chinese action invited reactions on expected lines. The US termed the Chinese action as a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region, increasing risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations, and that it would in no way change how the US conducts military operations in the region. The US followed up this statement by flying two unarmed B52 bombers into the so-called Chinese ADIZ. If China was merely signalling, then the US returned the signal. It is quite possible that China was hoping that such a counter-action would be undertaken by Japan and not the United States. Not surprising, there was no movement by PLAAF beyond a Chinese statement that it had monitored the flight of the B52 bombers, which means little. If China wanted to test the US-Japan alliance, it got the answer.
Rise of the Dragon
Ever since 1993, when China became a net importer of oil for the first time, it has been publicly declaring its intentions of stepping beyond its traditional continental land-oriented security paradigms. In January 2005, Lt General Lin Yazhou, then Deputy Political Commissar of PLAAF, stated, “When a nation grows strong enough, it practises hegemony. The sole purpose of power is to pursue power... Geography is destiny… When a country begins to rise; it shall first set itself in an invincible position.” With the recent statement of the ADIZ from the PLAAF, there is some coincidence but Lin Yazhou forgot that geography is not in favour of China as it has a limited oceanic front, and more importantly, changing geography akin to the erstwhile British Empire and blitzkrieg type of actions are unlikely to succeed. But then Chinese actions in recent years have led a cross section to conclude that this Chinese mindset is rooted in its historical “Tian Xia” (under the Heaven) concept which traditionally views “all territories” under the sun belonging to the Chinese, because of which they attach no sense to territory. So possibly when Lin Yazhou stated: “Geography is destiny,” he was perhaps hallucinating the entire global airspace being dominated by the PLAAF.
Implications and Fallouts
The fact that China has again launched fighter jets in the ADIZ ‘after’ the United States, Japan and South Korea had flown military aircraft in defiance of China’s claim, indicates that China intends to keep disturbing the status quo and throwing the gauntlet across the waters. China’s declaration of the above ADIZ apparently would have the following fallouts: China’s ADIZ encompasses the air space above Japan’s Senkaku Islands and as such overlaps with the Japanese ADIZ; challenging Japanese sovereignty. Chinese attempt to unilaterally impose its ADIZ regulations on Japanese airspace, increases the risk of misadventure in the air rather than containing such risks. Since the US administered Senkaku islands after World War II and later transferred them back to Japanese control, the US recognises Japanese administration over Senkaku islands. The US has demonstrated its defence treaty with Japan which covers the Senkaku islands—land feature, territorial sea and air space. Should PLAAF send military aircraft to challenge Japanese military aircraft over the Senkaku islands, it can provoke a clash that can escalate. The US action has reassured allies in the region who post the US economic draw down and budgetary cuts were apprehensive whether the US would physically come to their assistance in case of conflict. China has indicated that it reserves the right to impose ADIZs over other maritime regions including South China Sea.
Ever since 1993, when China became a net importer of oil for the first time, it has been publicly declaring its intentions of stepping beyond its traditional continental land-oriented security paradigms
If China promulgates an ADIZ over the South China Sea, this could affect Vietnamese military air patrols over the Spratly islands. Since Japan insists that there is no dispute over Senkaku, China’s long-term strategy appears to continue claiming the ADIZ and keep patrolling it, in order to drive home the point that it indeed is disputed. Should there be a clash because of further Chinese action, China’s neighbours would need to review defensive measures to protect their sovereignty, which may lead to escalation of acquisition of arms and even going nuclear without a test and without announcements – akin to Israel. By provoking Japan, China is inadvertently doing a strategic favour to Japan by rousing Japanese nationalism to the next level. Already, Japan is in the process of revising its defence policies. As per analysts, a pre-emptive strike strategy against potential aggressors may well be on the cards. Japanese media reports indicate that a study to strengthen the ability to deter and respond to ballistic missiles has been concluded. Mao Tze Dong’s had said, “The Chinese people have stood up; they will never again be humiliated.” But China must realise that Japanese people were standing much before Chinese took baby steps. So, China will have to bear the consequences of trying to humiliate the Japanese psyche. Should Chinese assertiveness continue to disregard global commons, continue to declare more ADIZ that would affect more countries of Asia-Pacific and orchestrate clashes at whatever small level, the situation taking an upward spiral can hardly be discounted, global reaction to which may include exploiting the fault lines within China especially since China itself has been waging proxy wars on many fronts over the past several decades. Thomas Reed in his recent book The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation reveals post his talks with Chinese scientists that China under Deng Xiaoping, decided to proliferate nuclear technology to communists and Muslims in the third world based on the strategy that if the West started getting nuked by Muslim terrorists or another communist country without Chinese fingerprints, it would be good for China. Hence the nuclear help to Pakistan and North Korea.
The Chinese declaration of the ADIZ encompassing the Senkaku Islands has the potential of escalation especially if Japanese military aircraft flying over them are physically challenged. China needs to realise that dialogue may be better than following the approach of the camel’s head slipping into the tent. Despite the fact that the purported ‘peaceful rise’ of China was never peaceful and conversely extremely violent, it would be prudent for China to keep its territorial ambitions in check for the sake of peace and prosperity of the region including its own and the world at large.