Chinese airspace claims reminiscent of pre-WW I

By Jonathan Manthorpe
November 27, 2013.

With China’s imposition of an air defence identification zone over disputed territory in the East China Sea, the imminent arrival of 2014 is beginning to look disturbingly like the months leading up to 1914.

In the early years of the 20th century, Germany saw that Britain had had to deploy the full weight of its empire to defeat the Afrikaners in the two Boer wars.

Berlin judged the days of Britain’s super power status were approaching their end. It launched an arms race and a flurry of provocations against Britain and its allies, which cascaded out of control into the First World War.

Beijing has made a similar judgement about the impending decline of the United States. China sees Washington has squandered untold resources and prestige in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beijing sees a weakened and irresolute super power at the very same time as China’s confidence in its own destiny and power has returned after 200 years in the doldrums.

China’s announcement on Saturday that it is imposing an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea is the latest in a decade of often small, and in themselves unexceptional, steps by Beijing to bolster its territorial claims. This is often called the salami slicing strategy.

Beijing’s tactic is to confront U.S. allies in Asia, and to see how far Washington is prepared to go to back its friends.

In making its claims to islands, islets and shoals in the South China Sea, Beijing has focused on pushing and shoving U.S. ally the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, increasingly Washington-friendly Vietnam.

In the East China Sea Beijing’s target is Japan. The ADIZ covers the airspace above the Senkaku Islands, owned by Japan since 1895, but claimed by China since 1972, when the prospects of finding submarine oil and gas around the five islands were first set out.

There is an added benefit for the Chinese Communist Party in goading Japan. Decades of indoctrination in Chinese schools against the Japanese for their colonial exploits in China in the 1930s and 1940s means that Chinese nationalism can easily be excited and attention diverted from the government’s own failings.

As Beijing grows more confident of its power, the rhetoric accompanying its moves to assert its territorial claims has become more belligerent.

The announcement of the ADIZ follows this pattern. Most countries have ADIZs in the air space approaching their borders. However, they usually only require planes planning to cross or land in the country’s territory to identify themselves, and then only to air traffic controllers.

China’s ADIZ is a different matter entirely. The statement accompanying the announcement said all planes travelling through the ADIZ, even if China is not their destination, must identify themselves and “follow the instructions” of China’s Defence Ministry.

The statement said China’s military will adopt “defensive emergency measures” toward aircraft that refuse to comply. If the implications of that are not clear enough, People’s Liberation Army Air Force Major General Qiao Liang was quoted in state-controlled media on Tuesday as saying “If the subject intruding into the zone disregarded any warning, our pilots have the right to shoot it down.”

The thought that the lives of passengers on airliners traveling some of the busiest air corridors in the world are now in the hands of young Chinese fighter pilots, with little or no experience of dealing with complex situations, is alarming.

Understandably in the circumstances, airlines from Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and even Japan have said in the last few days they will comply with China’s demands.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have, however, bowed to pressure from the Tokyo government and said they will not comply.

Today Washington also pushed back against Beijing and flew two of its massive B-52 bombers from their base in Guam through the ADIZ. China’s military did not confront the unarmed American planes, though Beijing said it had “monitored” the flights.

In this kind of situation the danger always is accident or miscalculations by forces on the frontline that then spiral out of control. That said, Beijing will likely now sit back and judge the power of the reactions to its move. It will probably not use its military to enforce the ADIZ unless it thinks it can do so with impunity.

Washington, Japan, Taiwan and even South Korea, which is going through a bad patch in its relations with Japan, have all condemned China’s ADIZ move.

It falls, though, very much in the pattern Beijing has established of taking the long view of its territorial claims, all of which have little or no historic or legal merit, and of seeking to assert its sovereignty by small, incremental steps.

In the waters around the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu, Beijing has for months been sending fishing boats and coast guard vessels to confront the Japanese authorities. The attempt to control the airspace over the islands is another step in these moves to establish a sovereign presence.

Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea stretches over 1,000 kilometers south from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory, Hainan Island, all the way to the territorial waters of Indonesia.

In its dispute with other littoral nations, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, China has occupied some islands and islets in their waters. It also, several years ago, created an ersatz “municipality” covering its claimed area of the South China Sea.

Few people took this bit of theatre seriously until, earlier this year, China set up on Wood Island in the centre of the South China Sea what it says is a government administering its territory.

It is an easy prediction to say that Beijing’s next move will be to try to impose an ADIZ over its claimed territory in the South China Sea.

© Jonathan Manthorpe 2013