Air Defence Identification Zone

Air defence zone row puts at risk East Asia's peace and prosperity

Kevin Rafferty fears for peace amid Sino-Japanese row over air zone

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 6:18am

Beijing's unilateral drawing of a new air defence identification zone in the East China Sea with tough rules embracing the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is a brilliant example of coercive diplomacy - and a disastrous setback for the stability, peace and prosperity of East Asia, particularly China and Japan.

The only possible beneficiaries are those in the Chinese military who want to flex their muscles and right-wing nationalists urging Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to stand idly by in the face of China's provocation.

The declaration of the air defence zone poses a dangerous challenge –  to Beijing

It is surely time for countries and people who care about world peace to speak up and urge politicians to come to their senses. But who has the authority, and will anyone listen in Beijing or Tokyo?

Since China announced its zone, tensions have increased. The US flew two unarmed B-52s through the zone. Was this a provocation or merely a notice to Beijing that it could not unilaterally redraw its air defence zones to encompass disputed territory?

Meanwhile, the blogosphere on both sides is lighting up furiously. And, while no one thinks governments are beholden to bloggers, the force of opinion on social media can push a government to harden its position.

The declaration of the zone poses a dangerous challenge - to Beijing: is this just a set of rules on paper or will China try to enforce them, by buzzing an intruding aircraft, by forcing it away from the zone, or even, some US analysts fear, by shooting down an aircraft, perhaps by mistake? A real tiger cannot have its bluff called too many times.

Other countries, including the US, also maintain and monitor air defence zones, which extend beyond their air space, but normally do not require civilian aircraft entering them to supply information unless they intend to enter the country's air space. The Chinese instructions, with the threat of military action if aircraft do not obey, are tougher. The zone also overlaps similar zones maintained by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

China has not made its game plan clear. Does it merely want to get Japan to admit that the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is disputed, or is it intending to use the zone as a more forceful wedge to wrest control of the islands when the initial protests have died down?

It is a dangerous game. It sets up the prospect of a bad accident or military clashes, which would be risky enough, or a war, which would be at best a Pyrrhic victory for the winner.

In Europe, though political leaders are reluctant to recognise it, the old system set up by the Treaty of Westphalia, of nation states as supreme sovereign rulers, is over. We are all part of the main: prosperity, poverty, and pollution and environmental damage, flow from one country to another along a vast river.

In Asia, especially in China, Japan and Korea, where deep historical animosities linger, there is resistance to recognising that this is one world. Beijing has set the clock back. A bad reaction in Tokyo could set it back further.

Next week's visit to Beijing by US Vice-President Joe Biden could help bring China to its senses or might act as a red rag to inflame passions further. Someone should be working on Abe, who is split between his allegiance to his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime official in Manchukuo and post-war prime minister, and his wish to rescue Japan's economy from its 21st-century doldrums.

Someone should be whispering hard in Abe's ear that the key to continued peace and prosperity, and to lifting Japan's economy, is good relations with the neighbours, however tiresome they may be. But can he understand this, let alone make Beijing and Seoul see that they are all bound together for good or ill?

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University