No one should be surprised at what the “middle kingdom” is doing it at this precarious time. After all, China’s territorial map was redrawn many times during the last two centuries, and in most cases it shrank, with imperial guns held against its head. Suffering from countless humiliations, but unable to seek revenge against stronger hands like Russia, China instead invaded and annexed Tibet, a defenseless territory.
This time, China is drawing red lines in thin air over the East China Sea.
However, the altitude of the new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) is missing. It is not clear how far the outer limit of the zone penetrates into the third dimension — space. Does it reach only the commercial aircraft cruising-height of about 13,000m? Or does it reach to 30,000m, the altitude U2 spy planes operate at, or 90,000m, the altitude of a polar orbiting satellite?
Actually, the red zone height that Beijing has in mind is not an altitude, but is dependent upon US President Barack Obama’s focus and resolve. If China faces a stern face with grinding teeth from Obama, the height will drop to several thousand meters, a level that is suitable for drones. On the other hand, if there is acquiescence, it will extend all the way to the sky over Washington.
China is floating a gigantic test balloon and taunting the US, Japan and South Korea to puncture it, if they dare.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) senses a golden opportunity to probe Obama, whose popularity is sinking domestically. Xi so far seems to grasp well the gravity and limitations of his move.
More than two decades ago, Moscow shot down a South Korean commercial aircraft it claimed had violated its air defense zone. Does China contemplate a similar move?
Given its dependence on foreign investment, China should think twice before taking such action. After all, China’s zone extends beyond its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea.
The country’s interest will be better served by dispatching its newly completed aircraft carrier to the area.
At least a sea level, surface-to-surface confrontation at low speed is much more manageable than a high-speed midair collision.
Kengchi Goah is a senior research fellow at the US-based Taiwan Public Policy Council.