GPS speaks with International Crisis Group analyst Yanmei Xie about recent tensions in East Asia, China’s air defense identification zone, and what it means for U.S. ties with Beijing.
What exactly is the air defense identification zone that China has announced?
The air defense identification zone, announced last month, covers a set of islands – called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan – whose sovereignty is hotly disputed by the two countries. Beijing has demanded that from now on, aircraft entering the zone have to report their flight plans, maintain communication and show identification, or “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond.”
What’s behind the move?
Challenged at sea, Beijing could be hoping to assert greater control over the contested islands by unilaterally establishing administrative rights over the airspace above them. It has already been eroding Japan’s administration of the disputed waters by regularly dispatching patrol vessels to the area since the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private owner in September 2012.
The move may also have been driven by the People’s Liberation Army’s desire to expand its power projection. The PLA for years has been arguing that Japan’s air defense identification zone unfairly restricted Chinese military aircraft’s movement and advocated for the establishment of one of its own.
China’s sudden declaration, however, is puzzling in light of its foreign policy goals. Just a month ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping in a high-profile speech, stated that “safeguarding peace and stability in the neighboring region is a major goal” of the country’s diplomacy.
It’s difficult to comprehend how such a vision is served by Beijing’s latest move, which further antagonized Japan and unsettled its allies the U.S. and Australia. It disquieted even Seoul, which had significantly tightened ties with Beijing this year, as China’s new air-defense zone overlaps extensively with South Korea’s and covers an area of ocean claimed by both. Taiwan, which also claims the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, expressed its concern as well. Beijing’s action is also likely to fan anxiety again in Southeast Asia, where memories of Beijing’s assertive push for control of islands in maritime disputes remain fresh.
Does China have reasonable grounds for the move?
Chinese analysts have argued that China has the right to set its protected airspace, just like the U.S. and Japan have done. There is some truth to that argument, but as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, “The timing and the manner of China's announcement are unhelpful.” With regional tensions over island disputes simmering, it’s hard not to see Beijing’s sudden announcement as an unwanted escalation, and it calls into question its commitment to the peaceful use of its growing power.
So what does this mean for Sino-Japanese ties moving forward?
Overnight, this single move may have erased the modest but hard-won efforts to restore the Sino-Japanese relationship. In recent months, exchanges of business delegations and visits by provincial officials, halted since the islands dispute flared, had quietly resumed. Negotiations on a China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement carried on, and China’s Ministry of Commerce has been keen to push it through. Scholars and researchers met for track 2 exchanges to brainstorm further fence-mending steps.
On the diplomatic front, the two sides’ official positions remain wide apart. Beijing wants Tokyo to admit the islands are disputed, while Japan demands China stop sending patrol vessels. Yet throughout this sparring, the foreign ministries have maintained regular contact and Japanese diplomats are routinely briefed by their Chinese counterparts on matters related to North Korea. Former diplomats – China’s Japan hands and members of Japan’s China school – kept up shuttle diplomacy in attempts to break the impasse.
Given the recent tensions, these small steps took vision and an understanding that the multi-dimensional bilateral relationship – and each country’s national interest – is much bigger than a cluster of uninhabited islands. They also took some courage, as nationalism in both countries has been on the rise, especially in China where anti-Japan sentiment hovers at a fever pitch.
This new negative turn is likely to continue to be self-reinforcing. Beijing’s muscular move reinforces the worst fears of the Japanese public that China’s intentions are aggressive, right when Tokyo is finalizing new defense guidelines. It will aid Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his bid to boost national defense and loosen constitutional constraints on the Japanese Self-Defense Force. In turn, if it fuels Asia’s arms race, he will buttress claims by Chinese hawks that militarism is making a return in Japan. This means that the bilateral tensions that began with a squabble over the group of rocky islets will head in the direction of becoming a full-blown strategic confrontation with each party viewing the other as a potential enemy. The hostility risks becoming entrenched, institutionalized and much more difficult to isolate and untangle. It’s likely to poison every aspect of the bilateral relationship– as well as regional stability.
How does the U.S. factor into this?
The vicious cycle threatens to pull in the United States. Already, Washington on November 26 sent two long-range bombers through China’s ADIZ around the contested islets, and this is likely to be a strong warning for the Chinese not to continue testing the robustness of the U.S.-Japan alliance. China’s poking of Japan could undermine a signature foreign policy initiative by the Xi administration, namely to establish “a new type of major power relationship” with Washington, which Xi himself said means “no conflict, no confrontation; mutual respect; and win-win cooperation.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in the region. What might we expect?
Biden is expected to voice concerns to Beijing about the destabilizing effect of its recent actions and urge the Chinese leadership to refrain from further escalation and adopt a more cooperative course. He is also likely to advise U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to act with restraint and assure them of Washington’s commitment to the integrity of the alliances. Washington does not take a stance on the sovereignty of the islands, but considers them territory administered by Japan and under the protection of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. Overall, Biden’s trip is intended to demonstrate the staying power of the U.S. in Asia and alleviate doubt on Washington’s commitment to rebalancing to the region.
Is China likely to back down, or will the domestic pressure to stand firm prevent that?
China will not revoke its new air defense identification zone after the high-profile announcement. Doing so would subject Beijing to severe domestic criticism and ridicule. But it has been backpedaling on enforcement. Initially stating that all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities, the Foreign Ministry later said China, “will respond to different cases individually regarding the level of threats,” after the U.S. challenged the newly established zone with flyovers by B-52 bombers.
However, this seeming flexibility may not be a good thing, as it creates confusion and uncertainty and gives the discretion on enforcement to the PLA, which administers the ADIZ, and even to individual pilots who patrol the airspace. Some Chinese commentators have even suggested that enforcement be taken only against Japanese aircraft. When mistrust is deep, intentions unclear, and rules ambiguous, this is a recipe for miscalculations and accidents.