China and US must work together to ease zone tensions
With Beijing unlikely to make changes to its new air defence area, the best way to avoid conflict is through deeper dialogue
President Xi Jinping told the visiting former US president Bill Clinton earlier last month that the relationship between the two countries had become a "skyscraper". This is the first time a top mainland leader has used this word to define the complex and evolving Sino-US ties, signalling an optimistic view of the height and strength of the relationship.
Merely five days later, however, and the foundations of the skyscraper have started to shake. Or at least it seems like it. On November 23, the Ministry of Defence announced the establishment of a new "air defence identification zone", known by its initials ADIZ, over a large area of the East China Sea, covering the islands disputed with Japan, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. The decision appears to have triggered a major geopolitical crisis, involving the US, China, Japan, the world's first, second, and third largest economies, along with other countries and regions including South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia.
Beijing demanded all aircraft flying through the zone first register with the mainland authorities or face the consequences, but Washington, Tokyo and even Seoul have defied Beijing by flying military patrols through the zone without prior notice over the past week. In response, Beijing scrambled fighter jets and early warning planes to "identify and monitor" the flights.
Initial reactions have contained a sniff of panic as many people expressed concerns about the safety of commercial airlines passing through the zone and others were worried that any unintended confrontation could lead to a similar incident to April 2001, when a mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane off the mainland coast led to a major setback in Sino-US ties.
While these worries are legitimate, the chances of any military confrontation, intended or unintended, are very low so long as Washington and Beijing are taking steps to strengthen the foundation of the skyscraper.
Beijing's announcement last week may have come out of the blue, but it was the result of long and careful thought, reflecting Xi's new and more assertive diplomatic initiatives as China tries to expand its maritime power and its influence in the region to counter the US's policy of aligning with Asia and Japan's increasingly aggressive stance over the sovereignty of the islands.
As the Ministry of Defence officials have rightly argued, China has every right to set up the air zone, just as nearly 20 other countries with maritime borders have done. In fact it is the last major power in the region to do so - Japan set up its own air zone in 1969, covering the disputed islands, with the help of the United States.
The consensus among analysts is that one of Beijing's main purposes in setting up its own air zone is aimed at sapping Japan's hold over the Diaoyus and pushing back against Tokyo's hawkish foreign stance. Japan began to grow more assertive after it decided to nationalise the islands, and it continues to refuse to acknowledge a dispute exists.
Moreover, the establishment of the zone is also part of Beijing's grand vision to project its maritime power. Amid the tension over the air zone last week, China's aircraft carrier group docked for the first time at its new base in Sanya on Hainan Island , signalling its ambitions in the South China Sea, which covers islands also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
As this paper reported last week, Beijing's decision to project its maritime power has also been made possible by its rapid advances in military hardware, such as early warning reconnaissance planes and the launch of its first aircraft carrier. But just as it stumbled with the initial announcement of reform plans after the Communist Party's recent key meeting, Beijing also seems to be ill-prepared for the unusually strong reactions over its forceful manner in proclaiming the new air zone.
The first terse statement from the Defence Ministry stipulated all foreign aircraft must file their flight plans with the authorities in advance or face the consequences. It offered no explanation, no reason, no background and no context.
It has since backed down somewhat by clarifying that the ADIZ was not China's sovereign space and it was "incorrect" to suggest that China could shoot down planes in the zone.
Moreover, as some China analysts have pointed out, the aggressive nature of the new zone, which also covers an island disputed with South Korea, has drawn strong criticism from Seoul, which maintains warm economic ties with China and stood firm with Beijing on pushing back Japan's nationalist policies. Taiwan and Australia are also uneasy.
Indeed, since Beijing's announcement of the new zone, it has not received any gesture of support or understanding from most of the countries in the region. It says something about Beijing's predicament on this issue when the mainland newspaper Global Times reported over the weekend that North Korea was the only foreign country to have voiced support for China's announcement, although it did not say where the North Korean statement came from or who issued it.
However, as is the case with every major geopolitical issue impacting Asia, it is the intentions of Beijing and Washington which will determine how the latest flare-up will evolve.
Tentative signs of efforts to ease the tension have already emerged over the weekend as Washington said it was advising American airlines to comply with Beijing's demand to be notified of their flights through the new zone. The advice is in contrast with that of Japan, which asked its commercial airlines not to comply with Beijing's demands.
While the US said that it would continue to send military planes into the zone unannounced, its advice to commercial airlines seemed to be a gesture of goodwill ahead of the visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden, which takes him to Japan, China and South Korea this week.
There is little doubt that the disagreement over the new zone will feature highly in Biden's meetings with Chinese leaders, but Beijing is unlikely to yield and modify the scale of the new zone despite international pressure. The only viable route is for Washington and Beijing to engage in deeper discussions to ensure tensions do not escalate.
Meanwhile, the strong reactions are most likely to prod the mainland leadership to review its strategy and delay the roll-out of other air zones, particularly one covering the South China Sea.