China’s unexpected declaration of its AIR DEFENCE IDENTIFICATION ZONE (ADIZ) on November 23 in the East China Sea may have ramifications beyond intended targets. To a certain degree China cannot be denied its own DIZ. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, to speak of the region concerned, have their AIDZs. But their AIDZs do not over lap each other and leave air corridors unaffected, whereas the Chinese one does not.
The Chinese claim there is nothing wrong with their action, it is non-provocative and underlines normal defensive position of their country. The Chinese declaration demands not only war planes but even civilian passenger aircraft to identify themselves before entering the zone. The US and Japan reached strongly and sent their military aircraft through the zone. Chinese aircraft only trailed their projectory but made no contact. South Korea, Taiwan and Australia have also expressed concern as the Chinese identification zone interferes with free international air corridors.
China may have won the first round. The US has advised its international civilian flights to act in line with the Chinese identification demand, rest there be a mistake and a civilian aircraft brought down by the Chinese could set the region into fire. Such mistakes are not impossible given the training or the lack of it in the operational levels of the Chinese forces in handling sophisticated equipment. The issue was further complicated when a PLA air force major general Qiao Liang told (Nov. 27) in an interview in Beijing that Chinese pilots had he right to shoot down any aircraft that disregarded warnings. Qiao, however, went on to say it would be irrational to fight a war over the ADIZ, and territorial disputes should be resolved through negotiations.
Interestingly, Hu Jixian, editor-in-chief of the daily Global Times, a highly nationalist newspaper, said something different on the Sina Weibo micro blogging site. He said ADIZ was not equal to air space and China could not force US and Japan to inform their flight plane on the AIDZ, and neither will Chinese air planes do so when they enter their ADIZ.
This difference of approach between a senior military officer and the edito-in-chief of an official newspaper which usually supports China’s positions, raises questions. Qiao Liang may be airing some views in the PLA. Hu Jixian could quite possibly be reflecting the views of certain sections in the civilian hierarchy who are against the issue escalating to a military conflict.
In the first place, the ADIZ has been enacted by Beijing to more forcefully position its claims on the Senkaku (Daioyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea. An issue left over from the last world war , the conflict over sovereignty lay dormant till the Japanese government bought these islands from a private Japanese owner. This one act was confirmation to the Chinese leaders that Japan was moving quickly to establish full sovereignty over these islands. Its first concrete response was to submit to the United Nations baselines to demarcate a territorial sea around the Diaoyu islands. Military shadow boxing was resorted to by both sides till it reached serious proportions.
In establishing its ADIZ, China has trespassed on South Korea and its ADIZ. It also includes the Seoul-controlled submerged rock Ieodo which has been disputed by the two countries. The Ieodo is a very sensitive territorial claim and protected by the South Korean naval operations, making it a source for potential conflict. This may cost China politically and may halt the recent closing of China-South Korea relations targetting Japan. The ADIZ has put South Korea and Japan in the same camp. South Korea’s internal politics may witness an important shift towards the US and the presence of the US military in South Korea. The usual anti-US political mindset may be moving towards appreciation of the American protective shield against and increasingly assertive China. If China approaches the Ieodo rock sovereignty issue in the same way as it is dealing with the Diaoyu islands, instability in the region will certainly increase.
The China-Japan political struggle has extended to South East Asia, the ten-member ASEAN countries. With conflict over the sovereignty of South China Sea’s Spratly group of islands at the base, China stands in opposition to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Claims by China and Taiwan are similar, both claiming the entire group of islands as Vietnam does. The Philippines remains in sharp opposition to Chinese claims some of which are even over islands and reefs within the continental shelf of Manila.
While China has also embarked upon friendly relations with the Spratly co-claimants, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the Japanese initiative with these very countries with some success. In fact, some of these countries, especially the Philippines, may be willing to forget Japan’s wartime atrocities to welcome a more powerful Japan discarding its constitutional military restrictions to balance an increasingly aggressive China. The South East Asian countries are, however, not sure how they can depend on the US to balance China. What they want is an ideal situation where the US balances China and they continue to economically derive the benefits. This hope is marred by China’s increasing demand on maritime territories and the South China Sea. These countries have a combined bilateral trade with China crossing $ 400 billion. Their economies are greatly tied to China. A major upheaval will bury the so called Asia-Pacific miracle. If push comes to a shove China may be willing to take a risk which the others cannot unless the US plunges in. But that is a very unlikely scenario.
It is not that the new Chinese leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang has adopted a new policy. Most China watchers had expected that ofter the third plenum of the 18th party congress (Nov. 9-12) Xi and Li would drive internal development and stability matters and cool down territorial disputes in the interest of a stable neighbourhood. The Xi-Li duo surprised most observers by continuing with the assertive line of their predecessor President Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao. Both Xi and Li were part of that policy and are continuing it to raise a notch higher. They have several things to consider. One is the rising nationalism and anti-Japanese feeling among the Chinese people nurtured by the Communist Party since 1949 through intensive propaganda and brain washing. This must be addressed in the interest of the party’s leadership.
Next, primacy and control over its neighbourhood is very important for internal stability and development. Power ensures peace.
Third, China demands it be recognized as the power next to only the USA in the world, and the unquestioned prime power in Asia. It has reasoned its position well. It is the second biggest economy in the world, only next to the US, and soon to over take the US. Per capita wealth does not matter in this equation. With the power it has forced France to apologize on the Tibet issue, UK is scurrying to appease and partner it, the European Union is fully cognizant of this fact, and only the US remains to be fully harnessed. Internationally, China believer that following its strong position against the US on Syria and the Iran nuclear issue it has vindicated itself as a major international player on its own. Militarily, on paper at least China has advanced substantially to even make the US do a re-think if it wants to interfere in China’s core interests. Here, however, China is not on very firm grounds. The US military is technologically about 50 year ahead of China’s military, and as the PLA plays catch up, the US surges further ahead. The US military is continuously battle tested as its advanced weapons are. The PLA has not fought a single war since the 1979 battle against Vietnam, and hardly glorified itself. Its weapons are not tested in a war theatre, C3I (command, control, computer and intelligence) remain at a nascent stage, and the morale in the PLA is rather low because of corruption and increasing distance between officers and other ranks. Sustainability of war is much higher on the American side for various reasons.
There is an ongoing debate in China over US President Barack Obama’s Asian Pivot, gradually downgraded (?) to rebalancing in Asia. The Chinese were also taken a bit by surprise by USA nomenclature readjust from “Asia Pacific” to “Indo Pacific” region.
When declared in January 2012, the “Asia Pivot” conveyed a more aggressive policy shift from the USA. It has been renamed in a manner to the more passive term “rebalancing” in Asia. There has been an effort to convey to Beijing that the US was not engaged in encircling and containing China. China is paranoid that the US was leading Japan, India, Taiwan and South Korea to contain China’s rise. Most of China’s strategic thinkers believe there is a major conspiracy to counter China’s “peaceful rise”. This is mostly self-created, and a defensive mechanism to shield its own transgressions against other countries.
The term “Indo-Pacific” was long over due. For too long, the other term “Asia Pacific” was used by the west to denote only China, East Asia and South East Asia interfacing the US and the west. India has burst out of the South Asia conundrum, a cage into which India was pushed during the cold war by the US-China axis created by US President Richard Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger.
During his last visit to China in November, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh told Chinese leaders that India was not in the game of encircling and containing China, and also politely explained neither country should do that to each other. The message was very clear. India-US, India-Japan and Indian interest in the South East Asian countries were purely bilateral and economic. He left the Chinese to think what they were doing: interfering in India’s neighbourhood, arming many of them, and continue to upgrade Pakistan’s military including its nuclear weapons, which are all targeted against India.
The Chinese assertion that their military sales were “responsible” was always fraudulent and remains one till today. They remain primarily responsible for nuclear and missile proliferation across Asia. Pakistan, a recipient of China’s nuclear largess, is on all counts a secondary proliferator. The recent reports about an agreement under which Pakistan had nuclear weapons to supplied to Saudi Arabia is one case in point. China has already supplied CSS-2 nuclear capable missiles to Riyadh! That was China’s nuclear policy to counter the US influence in the Middle East.
It is known that in recent years strong forces in China especially those connected to the PLA, have been straining to break out of Deng Xiaoping’s advice “hide your strength, bide your time”. This group is of the opinion that China is now strong enough to take over the position of the second super power after the United States.
It is, therefore, quite certain that Beijing may create a new ADIZ over the South China Sea to cover the Spratly Islands and the maritime lines of the sea. This will impact global trade severely. China had earlier tried to get the US nod to declare South China Sea as its “core” iinterest, but failed. It is now moving towards a similar position on the Senkaku Islands.
There is a view in the Chinese official media that China-Russia relations have never been stronger and they both supplement each other against US expansionism. This is correct to an extent only. But Russia is also seeing potential in the Pacific to play its own role. The Putin-Medvedev leadership in Russia is very well aware of China’s fast growing ambition and determination to restrict Russia’s influence not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also in Central Asia, the ex-Soviet states. The contradictions between the two in both regions are related.
Certain Russian actions are reflective of Moscow’s distrust of Beijing. President Putin has expressed his view that the relative importance of Asia Pacific region is rising in Moscow’s foreign policy and specific countries in the region. Although Europe centered, the economic sluggishness of the continent must be supported by the rise in Asia, and provide a market for Russia’s natural resources exports, especially oil and gas. To the end, there has been new emphasis on the development of East Siberia and the Far East regions. It is moving to build a road connection from South Korea through North Korea to Europe, which can give a new boost to transcontinental trade. Joining the East Asia summit in 2011 along with the US, and hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Corporation (APEC) summit in September 2012 boldly spelt out Russia’s vision.
Most shocking to China is Moscow seeking new security cooperation with Japan. The Russia-Jappan Security agreement (without prejudice to US-Japan security treaty), 2+2 (Foreign minister plus Defence Minister) dialogue, search and rescue operation exercise on the seas and anti-drug exercise in Afghanistan have been remarkable.
These rapid developments in the short span of about two years certainly tell a story. The mistrust between Russia and China is further reflected by Russia’s largest ever military exercise earlier this year in the Far East, difference on Russian gas price, and Russian reluctance to sell advance military equipment to China especially aircraft and aircraft engines.
The Russian establishment including the military strongly resent the Chinese pusing them out to create a G-2 world order with the US. A more active Russian diplomacy appears on the horizon in which China will not have a stellar role.
The US is watching these developments quietly, but closely. On the other hand it is also watching quite closely how far China will push its dominance in the East China Sea, south China Sea and the Taiwan strait. It has not fully committed to any clear action in all three areas, but maintained a strategic ambiguity. China is following the old Maoist strategy of “two steps forward, one step backward”, this is, acquire new ground but retreat only half way when there is opposition. But Chinese actions over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands gives Japan a perfect alibi not only to further develop its self-defence forces, but to get out of its present constitutional military bounds.
Where does China’s new foreign policy go from here? The new leadership seemed to have been seeking stable constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with its neighbours. It focussed on repairing relationship with its South East Asian neighbours, advocating putting away differences and building on common grounds. Having spoken thus, it is loathe to walk the talk.
India still seems to be near the periphery of China’s new assertiveness in its sea boundary. China’s reaction to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (November 29-30) was comparatively softer than before. But it made the point that the Indian state was Chinese territory and suggested India follow China on border talks and bilateral relations. Interpreted, China was busy now with more imminent challenges, and the border issue may rest at the moment undisturbed under Chinese terms. Some in the Indian media wrongly see this as real softening of the Chinese stand. It is nothing of the kind and Beijing will take up with vigour at a time of its choosing. Rest remains unchanged..
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)