China set to gain from airspace dispute

November 29, 2013. 

Even though China’s unilateral declaration of control over airspace off its eastern shores has spurred an unusually united push-back by the United States and its Asian allies, Beijing will be well pleased with the result of its imperial foray.

With one small move that is unlikely to generate a sustained counter-attack from Washington and regional allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Beijing has changed in its favour the security status quo in the East China Sea.

At home, the imposition last Saturday of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, owned by Japan but claimed by China, has aroused strong nationalist support. This provides further evidence that new leader President Xi Jinping intends to try to make China’s re-emergence as an international power a major justification for the continued monopoly on power of the Chinese Communist Party.

A predictable result of the imposition of the ADIZ is that it has set the stage for Beijing to be able to claim in the future that it has demonstrated administrative capacity – and therefore sovereignty – in the airspace over the five Senkaku Islands.

Until now Japan has refused to acknowledge that there is a legitimate dispute over ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu.

Tokyo points out the islands have been part of Japanese territory since 1895. Beijing began claiming the islands only in 1972 when a United Nations survey speculated there might be oil and gas reserves under the waters in the islands’ 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) exclusive economic zone.

Since September last year, when the Tokyo government purchased three of the Senkakus from their private owner in an effort to cool rampant nationalism in both countries, Beijing has been sending fishing fleets and Coast Guard vessels into the waters around the islands. Japan has confronted the intruders with its own surveillance vessels, and these encounters have become increasingly intense.

And in the air, China has been regularly sending warplanes through Japan’s airspace over the islands. When China recently said it will patrol the skies over the Senkakus with unmanned drone aircraft, the Tokyo government warned it will shoot them down.

Beijing loves provoking Tokyo into making any kind of warlike statement. Such comments are always widely broadcast of evidence of Beijing’s claim that Japan secretly remains the militarist nation that invaded China in the 1930s and 1940s.

If, by imposing the ADIZ, Beijing can get Tokyo to even admit that there is a dispute over the Senkakus, this will be a significant feather in China’s diplomatic cap. It will affirm to the nations of Asia that China has re-emerged as an international power after two centuries of impotence.

The wording used last Saturday by Beijing to announce the imposition of the ADIZ suggests the rules set out by China may be widely followed by commercial airlines, thus giving China some ability, however frail in reality, to promote its sovereignty claim.

Unlike ADIZs operated by other countries in their surrounding airspace, China says its zone is under military administration. Any non-commercial aircraft entering the ADIZ without notice, and which refuses to follow the orders of China’s military, may face “defensive emergency measures.”

The U.S., Japan and South Korea immediately challenged the ADIZ and sent unarmed warplanes through the zone. China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes monitored the flights, but did not attempt to intercept them.

However, commercial airlines using what is one of the world’s busiest airways are unlikely to endanger their passengers by taking such risks. Several airlines, even those merely transiting the zone and not heading for destinations in China, are notifying Beijing’s military authorities of their passage, and that is likely to continue.

The failure of the Chinese Air Force planes to do anything more than monitor the passage of the U.S., Japanese and South Korean military aircraft has prompted many outraged comments on Chinese blog sites, and even the mainstream media has characterised the response as wimpish.

The nationalist state-owned Global Times newspaper said by flying two massive B-52 bombers through China’s self-declared ADIZ, Washington had embarked on a “war of public opinion” and that Beijing had “failed to make a timely and ideal response.”

After a year in power, President Xi, who also heads the Communist Party, has made it clear that catering to nationalist instincts in China, which are heavily fertilised by distorted versions of history taught in schools and colleges, is one of his prime objectives.

It might have been expected that his first objectives would be to concentrate on China’s many domestic problems and to pay little attention to foreign policy until his home base is secure.

In fact, Xi is focusing as much on trying to establish China’s image as a great power in anticipation of America’s decline as he is on the country’s economic, social, political and administrative woes.

As well as confronting Japan, Xi is playing an equally bellicose game against the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed islands and islets in the South China Sea. Xi is forging strong security and economic ties with the oil and gas-rich countries of Central Asia.

The need for secure supplies of energy also propels Xi’s interventions in the Middle East, traditionally a region about which China knew little and cared less.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has already been drawn into China’s energy security embrace with the construction of gas and oil pipelines from the Bay of Bengal to China’s south-western Yunnan province. These supply lines avoid the Malacca Strait “choke-point” between Singapore and Indonesia, which China fears the U.S. could easily close to tanker traffic in the event of conflict.

For several years Beijing has promoted itself as the honest broker in the dispute between the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Russia over North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Under Xi, however, Beijing has made clear in word and deed that it will pursue its own interests with Pyongyang and is not interested in being a middleman for outsiders.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013