Sea change: China’s serious in asserting maritime primacy in the East China Sea

In all those classic Hollywood flicks about warfare in Asia, the storyline almost always was about how the outnumbered American or British military, determined to hold back all those alien hordes, fought off those “inscrutable” Japanese (and then, later, those “nefarious” Chinese). But that was then, this is now, and the big story in East Asia now is the slow, inexorable expansion of Chinese power and influence - this time around into the East China Sea area - as China attempts to reassert primacy there. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the newest moves by the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese - and, inevitably too, the Americans in dealing with this new paradigm.

A week ago, the Chinese surprised nearly everyone with a unilateral declaration of a brand-new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large maritime region. The intended aim by the Chinese was to require transiting aircraft to file advance information with the Chinese authorities. This ADIZ was anchored in the airspace around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and ran for hundreds of kilometres in a north-easterly direction, paralleling the Ryukyu Islands, Japan’s most southern province. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have not been universally accepted as de jure Japanese territory, but until recently the fact of Japanese administration of these small bits of rock in the East China Sea had been generally acknowledged.

In the immediate aftermath of this new Chinese ADIZ, unarmed American B-52 aircraft entered and left this newly designated zone without giving any notice, and the Koreans sent aircraft through part of it as well. The Americans insisted that their flight had been scheduled months earlier, and that it was not directly connected to this new Chinese announcement. Then on Friday, apparently becoming aware of the possibilities of dangerous mishaps in the air, the US State Department said it “generally expects” American commercial aircraft would comply with the requirements attached to the ADIZ. It added, however, that the US remains “deeply concerned” about China’s new zone, adding, in case there was any doubt, the US position on American air carriers “does not indicate US government acceptance of China’s requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ”.

The statement was issued just hours after China announced it had deployed its own fighter jets on Friday to respond to Japanese fighters and surveillance aircraft that had similarly transited the newly announced Chinese ADIZ. In noting these events, China’s Xinhua news agency said China had deployed Su-30 and J-11 fighters after at least ten Japanese aircraft, including F-15 fighters, E-767 airborne early warning and control aircraft, and P-3 surveillance aircraft had entered the zone. For its part, Xinhua said the Chinese jets were also responding to US surveillance craft.

Speaking on the various announcements, a Japanese foreign ministry official said, “The government of Japan understands that the US government has also been consistent in not recognising China’s ADIZ. Japan will continue to operate according to the existing rule and to collaborate with the international community on this matter. As a matter of fact, we already raised this issue at ICAO meeting.” The official then added, “The government of Japan also understands that there is no fact that the FAA has instructed US airlines to follow the Chinese rule.”

In the meantime, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have acknowledged complying with the new Chinese rules, but Japanese and South Korean carriers are said to be refusing to file flight plans in conformity with this ADIZ, unless their final destination is China itself. The US recommendation seems to have been in the interest of avoiding the possibility of any unanticipated confrontations – or even a calamitous mid-air collision – between a US flag airliner and a Chinese military craft. Shades of the demise of the KAL 007 flight over Sakhalin Island decades ago may well have been in the backs of their minds.

Actually, this Chinese announcement is not a one-off. Analysts note this Chinese declaration of its ADIZ is simply the latest ratchet forward of longer-term efforts to advance their interest in asserting ancient claims over regions, islands and seas once controlled by the current Chinese government’s predecessor regimes hundreds of years ago – and in the service of its new, more assertive, stronger military capabilities and geopolitical interests.

Over a year ago, Chinese patrol vessels had sailed into another part of internationally recognised Japanese maritime space. This provoked harsh words directed at the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo and a rather hyperbolic statement by the Japanese government that the Chinese move had been an “invasion” on an “unprecedented scale.” Invasion is not your usual diplomatic speak.

In that earlier event, while the Chinese did withdraw their patrol boats, in retrospect, this moment seems to have marked a sea change in Chinese maritime strategy vis-a-vis its island neighbour. Analysts say the hallmarks of China’s new approach include a limited movement into a new area, withstanding the resulting international fur flying with a fair degree of diplomatic stoicism, and then, via further repetitions of that effort, converting this initial new movement into a more quotidian, routine activity – creating, in effect, a new fact on the ground, or the sea. The analysts now argue that this method has been working.

At this point, Chinese vessels are now sailing into waters around Japan-administered islands on an almost weekly basis and they are sending fighter aircraft into Japanese airspace – or very close to it. These activities, in turn, now routinely are eliciting complaints from Tokyo, but no serious alarms or concrete counter measures. The conundrum for Japan is that none of the Chinese efforts has been, in and of themselves, sufficient to provoke an armed response – so far.

In a larger sense, from the Japanese perspective (and now, increasingly among the Southeast Asian nations along the littoral of the South China Sea as well as the Chinese assert claims to the Spratley and Paracel Island gorups), China’s piecemeal advance through these contested regions has become Japan’s greatest defence challenge since the end of World War II.

While several other Asian nations have expended energy attempting to rein in China’s new expansionist ambitions, it is Japan that may be the best-placed for this effort – especially given its new, more hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the country’s reviving economy, and the military muscle of its alliance with the US.  However, the Japanese have yet to evolve a substantive strategy that effectively counters the Chinese strategy, despite their sharp words and a series of on-going upgrades to Japan’s own arsenal.

On Friday, Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister told reporters that China is trying to “unilaterally alter the status quo by coercive measures.” And then, later, Japan called on the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation to look at whether or not China’s newly announced ADIZ poses a threat to aviation in the area. It appears the preferred Japanese strategy, rather than direct military confrontations, is to assemble a broader web of international support for its future measures in responding to China.

At least until this time, the Japanese have been unwilling to conduct direct negotiations with the Chinese over this ADIZ. As Itsunori Onodera, the Japanese defence minister, said, “Under the Chinese air defence identification zone, the Senkaku Islands become Chinese territory, so Japan cannot accept it. Under this assumption, we cannot accept any negotiation request from the Chinese side over how the ADIZ should be operated.”

The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman said, meanwhile, Japan was “merely allowing itself to set fires while forbidding others to even light a lamp”. The spokesman repeated China’s phrasing that the ADIZ was “not directed against any specific country or target” and insisted that in the past week international, “flights over the East China Sea were not affected at all”.

In all of this international “he said, she said”, the Chinese have argued their movements were responses to yet earlier Japanese provocations such as the Japanese government’s purchase of several of these islands about a year ago from their previous private landowner. Inevitably, the Japanese reply is that Chinese ambitions were already clearly visible well before that date.

According to Japanese statistics, they scrambled aircraft against Chinese aircraft about once a month from 2004 to 2007. Then, from 2007 onward, these happened about once a week. By 2013, however, these scrambles were taking place virtually daily. The Japanese Ministry of Defence also says it recently noted an unmanned aerial vehicle over the islands for the first time as well. While they were never able to make a positive id on this craft, the ministry explained, “If you take its flight path into consideration, it is possible to suspect it is a drone of China.” As a result of all of this, the trend line “testifies to a long-term increase in Chinese military activity in the maritime domain,” said a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

Partly as a function of its particularly baleful World War II experiences and the resulting constitutional limitations on their re-establishing a military with explicitly offensive capabilities, Japan elected not to define Chinese activities as a threat. However, in 2010, in accord with its new defence strategy, it has reorganised its forces, demonstrating a more explicit emphasis on these perimeter islands.

According to experts, in the near future, the defence strategy will be further redefined and this new strategy will call for the introduction of a Marines-type unit – and will even okay the use of drone craft for surveillance, further down the road. The proposed Japanese defence budget for next year already includes calls for upgrades to its existing surveillance equipment and new procurement of advanced patrol aircraft. The Air Self-Defense Force budget is now set to rise 7 percent in 2014, even though the country’s constitution still precludes key offensive weapons such as long-range missiles or traditional aircraft carriers. For example, Japan’s largest ship, the Izumo-class destroyer, is only capable of hosting helicopters at this point.

Masashi Nishihara, one of the country’s most senior defence analysts, argues that such limitations on its forces remain an important weakness for Japanese defence planning. In recognition of the constitutional barrier, Prime Minister Abe, rather than butting heads with the constitutional barriers, has preferred to invest time in building up relations with Southeast Asian nations – countries that had previously been rather neglected in terms of Japanese discussions on regional defence issues.

For now, the Chinese effort, and especially its declaration of this new ADIZ, seems to have been poorly received internationally. The measure has attracted strong criticism from – besides Japan – Australia, South Korea and the European Union. And the declaration attracted that American B-52 flyover as well.  Moreover, South Korea has indicated it is considering expanding its own version of an ADIZ over yet another bunch of rocks, in response to the Chinese actions.

As the Economist notes, “The rock, known as Loedo in South Korea and Suyan in China, has long been claimed by both nations, which have failed to reach agreement on their maritime boundary despite years of sporadic negotiations. The rock falls within the air defence zone announced by China last Saturday, but not within the corresponding zone currently claimed by South Korea, which has installed a research base on it. During a meeting in Seoul on Thursday, Chinese officials rejected a request by South Korea’s vice-minister for defence to redraw their air defence zone.”

Still, knowledgeable Japanese analysts are not fully convinced about the longer-term, positive results for their nation from this crisis. Narushige Michishita, another leading international relations analyst in Tokyo, argues, “For the time being, things seem to be quite favourable to us. But the question is how long this will last. China has been creating a gradual fait accompli, step by step, which is a pretty smart tactic. We make a big deal of this now, but we’ll forget about it after a while.”

By contrast, Southeast Asians have a somewhat different feeling about this current stand-off. “This is a dangerous game of chicken,” said Ian Storey, a security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, even before the Chinese had announced the details of their latest air missions over the area. Storey added, “China is testing the limits of the US-Japanese relationship, and the message from the US and Japan has been loud and clear.”

And Barry Desker, dean of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, also in Singapore, said the Chinese move amounted to an “own goal”. Desker argued, “While east Asian states are increasingly linked economically to China, they will be attracted to the United States politically and will strengthen bilateral ties with the US to balance China’s growing influence in the region. Even those sceptical of the US role in the region will acknowledge that regional support for the US policy of rebalancing will now increase.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, US Vice President Joe Biden is now en route for a weeklong trip to Japan, South Korea and China. Key elements of this trip will be efforts to deal with this current issue by finding ways to reinforce US support for Japan; to calm the US-China relationship more generally; and to attempt to modulate the Japan-China unpleasantness. All of this will take place in light of the increasingly frequently stated US pivot towards East Asia as the focus of US strategic concerns.

Michishita’s judgement, moreover, may not be taking full account of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to follow an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy approach, nor to include the likelihood China may well try additional measures to assert its place in the East Asian sun – and on into the Western Pacific Ocean – in the future. If so, it seems increasingly likely that Japan and China will continue to bump into each other, rather than the future offering a one-way ride for the Chinese to have things mostly their own way. DM

Read more:

  • China’s gradual expansion in the East China Sea poses a challenge for Japan at the Washington Post
  • US urges airlines to comply with China air rules at the Financial Times
  • Japan Takes Airspace Issue to U.N. Agency at the New York Times
  • China, Japan and America – Face-off – China’s new air-defence zone suggests a worrying new approach in the region at the Economist
  • State Department: Airlines should obey China’s rules at
  • Biden to attempt damage control in visit with Chinese leader at the Washington Post
  • Hagel: U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ with China air defense map at
  • China’s new air zone at top of agenda for Biden’s visit to Tokyo at the Japan Times
  • No change in China air zone airline policy at the Japan Times
  • China includes disputed islands in air defense zone over East China Sea, sets rules at Fox News (an AP story)
  • Analysis: East China Sea’s tiny islands, where bigger battle is fought at TDM

Photo: A group of disputed islands, Uotsuri island (top), Minamikojima (bottom) and Kitakojima, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen in the East China Sea. Japan and ally the United States sharply criticised China’s move to impose new rules on airspace over islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Tokyo, warning of an escalation into the “unexpected” if Beijing enforces the rules. (REUTERS/Kyodo)


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