Declaration of air zone is a sign that Beijing thinks risk of conflict is rising
The motives are complicated, analysts say, but it could signal an end to the era of China 'hiding its capabilities while biding its time'
The intentions behind China's declararation of a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) go beyond bolstering its territorial claims and reflect the leadership's wider strategic estimation of security challenges facing the country, analysts say.
The just-concluded third plenum of senior leaders also confirmed the leadership's assessment that the risk of conflict in the region is rising.
Beijing's declaration of the ADIZ last weekend prompted strong responses from the region as it overlaps the existing ADIZs of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and covers the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus. The move has raised fears that China is attempting to assert its territorial claims.
"It would be a mistake to confine the importance of the ADIZ solely to Beijing's game of cat and mouse with Tokyo," said an analysis co-authored by a team of Asia experts at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.
"Instead, it should be understood within the context of the new leadership's framing of the security challenges it faces in the region."
The article said recent authoritative Chinese documents "suggest that the 'period of strategic opportunity' is under 'unprecedented stress' and that the US rebalance [of military power in Asia] is the source of that stress."
"Along with hints from the just-concluded third plenum that the leadership is considering sweeping military structural reforms aimed at improving the PLA's combat effectiveness, it leaves an impression that the leadership is signalling that it judges the risk of conflict in the region to be on the rise," it said .
Meanwhile, during an inspection tour of the Jinan military area command yesterday, President Xi Jinping , who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, said the plenum's call for reforms of national defence and the military must be carried through. "[We] must realise the urgency of deepening the reforms," Xi said. "This will ensure the military's modernisation."
Other analysts said the move was part of Xi's efforts to reshape the country's diplomatic objectives and strategy.
"The move reflects the new leadership's increasing sense of urgency to respond to challenges facing its national security and territorial integrity," said David Tsui, an international affairs expert at Sun Yat-sen University's School of Asia-Pacific Studies .
Tsui said that since he took office last year, Xi had reshaped China's strategy and foreign policy by recalibrating its stresses on sovereignty and stability. He said the move was part of an effort to respond to the US' "pivot to Asia" that would see 60 per cent of its navy deployed to the region .
Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies, said China was coming out to state unequivocally where its interests lay. After more than 20 years of low-profile diplomacy under late leader Deng Xiaoping's tactic of taoguang yanghui ("hiding our capabilities, biding our time"), "the new leadership apparently thinks it is the right time to make this move," Yuan said.