Since I last wrote on this subject (“Territorial dispute could flare up,” Nov. 22, page 8), the situation has deteriorated further, requiring just a spark to ignite a bonfire. I am referring here to the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over an outcrop of uninhabited rocks jutting out of the East China Sea, which Japan and China respectively call the Senkakus and Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島).
Late last month, China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering a vast swath of the East China Sea over and around the disputed islands, including some in the South Korea-claimed maritime zone. What it means is that any foreign aircraft entering China’s zone will be required to notify Chinese authorities of their flight plans, as well as maintain radio contact or face unspecified “defensive emergency measures.” With Japan adamant about its sovereignty over the disputed islands, China decided to force the issue with its air defense zone. Whether this policy was clearly thought through with a plan b in the event that China’s directive was flouted is not quite clear.
Indeed, the US, Japan and South Korea all decided to ignore the Chinese ADIZ by flying their military aircraft without communicating their flight plans, with one important difference: US authorities have advised their civilian airlines to comply with the Chinese directive, yet insisted this does not mean US acceptance of China’s position. Japan, though, has advised its airlines to ignore the Chinese directive.
After appearing to fumble on its follow-up response, Beijing is slowly refining its approach, which is a combination of avoiding any military action while reinforcing its position by scrambling fighter jets and carrying out “routine” patrols. Beijing seems to be conveying the message that it has the capacity to enforce its security if threatened. An important motivation for China to declare its ADIZ, apart from putting Japan on notice, was to test the limits of the US’ resolve, in what Beijing considers a bilateral territorial issue between China and Japan.
The US has tried not to take a formal position on the sovereignty issue, but has acknowledged Japan’s administrative control and has stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the US-Japan security pact. In other words, the US will be bound militarily to protect Japan if these islands came under attack from China. During his recent Japan visit, later followed by trips to China and South Korea, US Vice President Joe Biden was critical of China’s actions as efforts to “unilaterally change the status quo,” and said that it had raised “the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” China has reportedly called the zone a fact of life that the world needed to accept.
China’s action has also invited criticism from Australia as a close ally of both the US and Japan. This invited a strong reaction from Beijing and a stern warning to Canberra to “correct” its mistake to avoid damaging their bilateral relationship.
Australia appeared unfazed by the Chinese reaction, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arguing that Canberra has a stake in the region and therefore opposes “action by any side that we believe could add to the tensions or add to the risk of a miscalculation in disputed territorial zones in the region.”
Indeed, Australia has taken a very strong stand, despite some concern that it could seriously affect economic ties with its largest trading partner. However, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot pointed out: “China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to trade with us.”
Abbot has been much more forthright in both emphasizing the centrality of Australia’s defense ties with the US and Japan, as well as the dangers arising from China’s unilateral move to change the “status quo.”
Abbot said: “We are a strong ally of the United States, we are a strong ally of Japan, we have a very strong view that international disputes should be settled peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law and where we think this is not happening, or it is not happening appropriately, we will speak our mind.”
In China’s view, this trilateral US-Japan-Australia nexus amounts to an effort to contain China. There is a strong sense in China that a number of regional countries simply cannot stand its rise.
As Peking University professor of international relations Zhu Feng (朱鋒) reportedly said: “Whatever China does, it always attracts critics. Let the critics go on and we’ll do what we do.”
He added: “China is going through its rise — we just have too many jealous neighbors.”
China is not going to worry too much about its neighbors and, for that matter, the US. There are two important factors guiding this national view. The first is China’s strong sense of past humiliation by foreign powers, focusing most on Japan for its wartime crimes. China must be strong and united and not show weakness in pursuing its core interests, including in the East China Sea. China is, therefore, keen to prove to itself and to the world that it will not be trifled with anymore and must re-establish its pre-eminent “historical” role in the region.
The problem is that China’s perception of its historical role conflicts with today’s nationalism, which is at the core of international relations. Some of China’s neighbors, that may or may not have been tributaries at one time in China’s then-Middle Kingdom, are now independent and contest China’s historical “facts.”
The US has been doing some tightrope walking. Its earlier call on China to rescind its decision on the ADIZ does not appear to have been repeated.
On the question of civilian flights, as noted earlier, the US authorities have advised their airlines to reveal their flight plans as required by the new Chinese directive, but without conceding China’s territorial position.
During his recent visit to Japan, China and South Korea, Biden was at pains to emphasize that the US Asia-Pacific “pivot” remains solid. The US nexus of security alliances with its Asian partners remains a cornerstone of its Asia-Pacific policy.
At the same time, Beijing has been told that a US-China relationship is crucial for the Asia-Pacific region.
The US believes that it can somehow pull through its policy of competing and contending with China while maintaining common ground and peace in the region. It is a herculean task, and if the experience of history is anything to go by, it is unlikely to work.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.
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