China, Japan and America: Face-off | The Economist

China’s new air-defence zone suggests a worrying new approach in the region

THE announcement by a Chinese military spokesman on November 23rd sounded bureaucratic: any aircraft flying through the newly designated Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea must notify Chinese authorities in advance and follow instructions from its air-traffic controllers. America’s response was rapid. On November 26th Barack Obama sent two B-52 bombers to fly through the new zone without notifying China (see article). This face-off marks the most worrying strategic escalation between the two countries since 1996, when China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, ordered a number of exclusion zones for missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, leading America to send two aircraft-carriers there.

Plenty of countries establish zones in which they require aircraft to identify themselves, but they tend not to be over other countries’ territory. The Chinese ADIZ overlaps with Japan’s own air-defence zone (see map). It also includes some specks of rock that Japan administers and calls the Senkaku islands (and which China claims and calls the Diaoyus), as well as a South Korean reef, known as Ieodo. The move is clearly designed to bolster China’s claims (see article). On November 28th Japan and South Korea sent aircraft into the zone.

Teenage testosterone

Growing economic power is bound to go hand-in-hand with growing regional assertiveness. That is fine, so long as the behaviour of the rising power remains within international norms. In this case, however, China’s does not; and America, which has guaranteed free navigation of the seas and skies of East Asia for 60 years, is right to make that clear.

How worrying China’s move is depends partly on the thinking behind it. It may be that, like a teenager on a growth spurt who doesn’t know his own strength, China has underestimated the impact of its actions. The claim that America’s bombers had skirted the edge of the ADIZ was gawkily embarrassing. But teenagers who do not realise the consequences of their actions often cause trouble: China has set up a casus belli with its neighbours and America for generations to come.

It would thus be much more worrying if the provocation was deliberate. The “Chinese dream” of Xi Jinping, the new president, is a mixture of economic reform and strident nationalism. The announcement of the ADIZ came shortly after a party plenum at which Mr Xi announced a string of commendably radical domestic reforms. The new zone will appeal to the nationalist camp, which wields huge power, particularly in the armed forces. It also helps defend Mr Xi against any suggestions that he is a westernising liberal.

If this is Mr Xi’s game, it is a dangerous one. East Asia has never before had a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time. China dominated the region from the mists of history until the 1850s, when the West’s arrival spurred Japan to modernise while China tried to resist the foreigners’ influence. China is eager to re-establish dominance over the region. Bitterness at the memory of the barbaric Japanese occupation in the second world war sharpens this desire. It is this possibility of a clash between a rising and an established power that lies behind the oft-used parallel between contemporary East Asia and early 20th-century Europe, in which the Senkakus play the role of Sarajevo.

via China, Japan and America: Face-off | The Economist.


5 Responses to “China, Japan and America: Face-off | The Economist”

  1. I think establishing an ADIZ is well within international norms. It was America who pioneered them (interesting, against the Japanese also) and Japan established an all too expansive one in 1969. As the Chinese point out, theirs is exactly the same distance from the Japanese mainland as Japan’s is (and has been for 40 years) to the Chinese mainland. I don’t doubt China are trying to break the status quo through Japan, but they’re doing their best to shroud it in international norms.


    • @Matt – thank you for informing us abut international norms wrt to ADIZ. What I think is interesting is that China has declared the new ADIZ during a significant dispute that the new ADIZ now covers. In the interest of fairness (I know which country if air when it comes to self-interest), I feel that China and its neighbours should get an unbiased UN panel to adjudicate.


      • I think issues like this, the UN would have difficulty adjudicating. Right now, the issue is all but solved. China has declared it, the US (and allies) have violated it and declared it null; the status quo survives. Maybe there’ll be more to it, but neither state really wants the islands for any quantifiable reason, China just wants to see if the US will respond if it makes certain actions in its own back yard. Whether they do or not comes down to the actions of the big players in the region.



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