SPEAKING FREELY ADIZ Posturing shows China's immaturity
By Namrata Goswami
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
One wonders if a recent China-Japan face-off over China's unilateral declaration of an "air defense identification zone" (ADIZ) over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea is worthy of raising in debate over strategy.
It appears China's behavior with regard to territorial disputes is entering the realm of a self-fulfilling prophesy. For years, ever since China's economic miracle helped to propel its military modernization, strategic analysts across the world have warned
us about China's aggressive intentions with regard to its area of influence.
What China views as this area of influence includes disputed territories along its land border with India; Taiwan, and islands in the South and East China Seas. China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia stake claims to the various South China Sea Islands whereas China and Japan lay claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
Any face-off in East Asia is critical to international security as it involves another important actor, the United States, which is treaty bound to defend Japan and allied with South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. Any show of force by China over the South China or East China Seas will compel the US to come to the rescue of Japan, South Korea and Philippines.
On Japan, the US is treaty bound to preserve the country and its territorial waters. Japan administratively controls the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. These islands have been the point of dispute between China and Japan for decades now.
In an unprecedented move, China imposed the ADIZ over the islands on November 23, implying that aircraft passing over these islands must inform China in advance of their flight plans or face "emergency defensive measures". Already, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, Australia have agreed to share such information with China.
According to a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson, this "is a necessary measure taken by China in exercising its self-defense right ... It is not directed against any specific country or target. It does not affect the freedom of overflight in the related airspace."
Strategic posturing by China and Japan over the disputed islands had been hogging the limelight of late. In April 2012, former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, stated that Tokyo was planning to buy the islands from its private Japanese owner.
This raised hackles in China and it issued a statement in response in its Foreign Ministry website to the effect that any unilateral action by Japan over these islands will be illegal. Both Japanese and Chinese foreign ministries reiterated their respective claims over the islands. In November 2012, China's new electronic passports carried a map that showed these islands as Chinese territory.
Such aggressive claims and counterclaims had long involved direct diplomatic confrontation between China and Japan. The recent move by China on the ADIZ over the disputed islands however brings the US starkly and visibly into the strategic picture.
While in earlier instances, the US had worked behind the scenes to encourage China to resolve the dispute diplomatically while at the same time reassuring Japan, this time around backchannel diplomacy may not work. It has to be preceded by a show of force by the US. This aspect is vindicated by the fact that two unarmed B-52 US bombers flew over the islands and entered the so-called Chinese ADIZ on November 25 without giving prior information to China of their flight plans.
China responded by stating that their military monitored and identified the US bombers. While US officials claim that the flights and this particular military exercise have been long planned, the fact that they decided to go ahead with the exercise is telling.
The US move to fly its B-52 bombers in the ADIZ stems from three interrelated factors. First, to reassure its East Asian allies that it will come to their rescue if China ups its strategy of increasing its hold and influence in the East and South China Seas island disputes. Second, to ensure that Japan will not unilaterally respond to the Chinese move which might prove costly. Third, to act as the mitigating factor in the rising tensions between China and its neighbors.
The Chinese move indicates that President Xi Jinping supports an aggressive Chinese display of force to assert its claims over its territorial disputes. Such a strategy has also been visible in the China-India land border dispute with increasing Chinese border intrusions.
The situation for China raises both an identity dilemma and a security dilemma. In terms of identity, China aspires to be recognized as a major power in its zone of influence. It wants to be seen as successful, a major power in international politics with an old civilization, and as a guarantor of peace amid its "peaceful rise".
However, this desire to be seen as a major and important power creates a sense of indignation within China whenever its smaller neighbors question its territorial claims or demands to be treated as equal stakeholders in the various territory disputes they share with China.
This then influences China to showcase its strength and military might through disabusing all other claims to territories whose histories are disputed and hotly debated. These shows of force then result in countries and most strategic analysts arguing that China's strategic posture is an indication of its aggressive intent.
The deeper psychological issue here is that while these moves by China perhaps represent an aggression, I suspect that this aggression is not based on simply its strengths but also represents its vulnerabilities vis-a-vis its neighbors and the United States.
At the broader level, China surely knows that the country most willing and capable of countering its aggressive moves in East Asia is the US. Hence, testing US resolve in East Asia is viewed as not such a bad move from a purely Chinese perspective. However, this perspective has failed to understand or strategize about the broader implications of such a strategy to China's own image.
First, China's aggressive gestures only bolster the "China threat" camp, who will tell us now "look, we told you so". Second, these moves makes China look weak and vulnerable especially after its meek response to incidents such as the B-52 bombers' open challenge to the ADIZ. Whereas earlier, Chinese PLA Air Force Major General Qiao Liang arrogantly stated that any aircraft violating the ADIZ would be shot down by Chinese military, when it actually happened, China was much more measured and toned down in its response.
Qiao, who published the influential Unrestricted Warfare, which explores strategies to defeat a technologically superior military, was also questioned for his provocative views in Internet debates.
Second, the recent move by China reveals that its strategic vision is not very different from its smaller neighbors. Like some in Japan who dabbled with provocations in 2012, China seems to be doing the same. This brings into doubt the maturity of China's foreign policy planning process, whether there is informed debate on the possible consequences of such actions.
Every provocative action by China with regard to its territorial disputes cannot be passed off as the mischief of one division, organization or person as it has tended to explain away such incidents on earlier occasions. At that time, the PLA platoon commander on the China-India border was blamed for acting on his own without higher approval and someone within the passport authorities was identified as the troublemaker for the e-passport provocation, thereby making light of issues that have deep strategic impact.
China needs to behave like the great power it wants to be recognized as - to raise itself above petty squabbles of the day and ensure that it is mature enough to understand how a peaceful East Asia is critical for international stability.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and a former Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington, DC The views expressed here are solely that of the author.