The people of Japan awoke last week to the news that they had a new island. The result of volcanic activity, it had arisen from the ocean 970 kilometres south of Tokyo, appearing off the coast of Nishinoshima.
The islet – which is only about 200 metres in diameter – hasn’t been given a name yet. That’s because officials want to see if it will stick around first. “New islands have a tendency to disappear back below the waves in a short time,” the National Geographic advises, although Japanese government spokesperson Suga Yoshihide was more hopeful, telling local press that Japan “would be happy to have more territory” if it stays above water.
The outcrop has emerged at a time when it might be better if another maritime outpost – the disputed islands that Beijing calls the Diaoyus and Tokyo refers to as the Senkakus – disappeared quietly from view.
That looks unlikely in geological terms, and politically too. Instead the ongoing tension between the two countries went up another notch this week as Beijing turned its attention away from the sea to the skies above.
So the dispute is worsening?
On Saturday, the Chinese government announced the creation of a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ). This calls for any foreign aircraft entering the airspace to get permission from the authorities in advance – or face the threat of military retaliation.
That may sound routine, but it soon proved a political powderkeg. Why? Because the outer reaches of the new zone cover the disputed islands. The gesture seems to be a fresh attempt by Beijing to impose its sovereignty over the area and shortly after declaring the new zone, China’s military sent planes to patrol it. Japan then scrambled its own jets in response. The Wall Street Journal said Beijing’s move “heralded a dangerous new phase of the territorial dispute”.
An official response from Tokyo wasn’t long in coming, with the Japanese government denouncing the move as “totally unacceptable”. Washington made plain its own opposition too. The Pentagon criticised the zone as “a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region”, while Secretary of State John Kerry added: “We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”
In turn, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defence instructed the United States to “earnestly respect China’s national security and stop making irresponsible remarks”, and further described Tokyo’s reaction as “absolutely groundless and unacceptable” too.
That, of course, is what you might expect of the verbal volleys that routinely fly back and forth between China and Japan over the islands. However, the incident entered a more serious phase when the US made a symbolic intervention on Monday by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers over the islands.
According to the BBC, the planes flew from Guam as part of a regular exercise in the area. The operation was confirmed by Colonel Steve Warren from the Pentagon: “We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.”
That is to say, the US deliberately ignored the new policy announced by the Chinese, implicitly daring Beijing to shoot down the bombers.
Warren added there had been no response from China during the B-52’s voyage. But if the Chinese had opted for a more confrontational stance, it could have proved the most serious rupture in Sino-US relations since America sent aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to show support for Taipei during a tense stand-off with Beijing.
The bomber exercise will also rekindle memories of an incident in 2001, again over a US aircraft. That time a collision with a Chinese jet forced down an American spy plane over Hainan (provoking complaints by China about incursions on its sovereignty).
More than 12 years on and the stakes are even higher. In the wake of China announcing its new air defence zone, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel made plain that America was ready to take sides, confirming that an attack on the disputed islands would trigger America’s obligations to defend Japan under its bilateral security treaty.
That is too frightening a prospect for almost anyone to digest.
The Japanese reaction?
Tokyo looks to have been heartened by Washington’s muscular response. On Tuesday it again declared that China’s zone was “unenforceable” describing it as having “no validity whatsoever to Japan”.
The Japanese have also taken a firm line with their own airlines, which initially granted the Chinese side a public relations victory by notifying China’s aviation authorities if “flights to and from Taiwan or Southeast Asia planned to enter the area covered by the Chinese measures”.
In other words, both Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) chose not to defy Beijing on the new rules.
A JAL spokesperson said at the time: “We have no comment about the policy itself, but we must follow procedures for safe flight operations.”
But since the B-52s made their trip, Japanese aviation officials have gone on the offensive, telling JAL and ANA there is no need to obey China’s request, with Tokyo issuing ‘administrative guidance’ ordering the country’s airlines to desist from doing so. Members of Japan’s airline association have subsequently agreed to stop filing such flight plans with China, after an emergency session midweek.
And the online reaction in China?
The Chinese public learned about the flyover via foreign media and weibo. Reactions varied, indicating popular opinion is splintered on the subject. Some netizens offered clear-headed and reasoned analysis. Some were cynical and sarcastic. The remainder took an aggressively nationalistic stance.
The angriest sentiment can be gauged from this widely-forwarded comment: “Shoot down the mother [expletive] and go to war. Even if it means several decades of sagging economic development.”
In the sarcasm camp, WiC particularly liked: “We have to punish the Americans by buying another Rmb1 trillion of US bonds.”
But for those taking it more seriously, the comments sought to convey a more balanced perspective. “An air defence identification zone (ADIZ) doesn’t equate to China’s air space. Japan has had its own ADIZ since 1969, which China has ignored,” wrote one.
Added another: “In terms of a potential military conflict between China and the US, this is the closest thing since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. But history suggests Beijing and the US tend to sort tensions out with diplomatic negotiations at the end of the day.”
Another netizen thought the incident’s greatest significance was in escalating the dispute beyond Japan. “Big Brother has finally showed up,” he wrote. “This officially makes it a China-US issue.”
Commentary in the official media was initially sparse. One of the first views released online came from the People’s Daily. It cited Li Jie of the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, who said there were four main reasons why Washington had sent the bombers into the ADIZ. The first was to probe China’s reaction; the second was to ensure its spy flights would not be affected by the ADIZ; the third was to show the world that the US remains the major power in Asia; and the fourth was to display to its Asian allies that the Americans aren’t afraid to go head-to-head with China.
The Global Times preferred to focus on a defiant message of China’s own. For three consecutive days this week days it put the latest deployment of China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, at the top of its official website. The Qingdao-based carrier on Thursday morning passed through the Taiwan Straits on its way to a training mission in the South China Sea – the first ever non-US carrier to do so. “The carrier kept a high degree of vigilance against approaches from foreign warships and aircraft during the voyage,” the Liaoning’s Captain Zhang Zheng told the Xinhua news agency.
The reaction of other neighbours?
The other key US ally to watch is South Korea. The Koreans have been cosying up to the Chinese in recent months – in large part because of their mutual antipathy for Japan. For instance, The Economist pointed out last week that Seoul was pleased that the Chinese city of Harbin has erected a statue of Ahn Jung-geun, an idea suggested by South Korean President Park Geun-hye when she visited President Xi Jinping in June. The significance? Ahn was a Korean nationalist who opposed Japanese colonial rule. In 1909 he shot (in Harbin) Ito Hirobumi, a former Japanese governor of Korea and Japan’s first prime minister. Koreans view Ahn as an anti-Japanese martyr.
Up to this point, Beijing has been on the end of a charm from Seoul. Park even delivered a speech in Mandarin during a visit to Beida University and emphasised her affinity for Chinese culture.
She has been less friendly towards Tokyo, telling Defence Secretary Hagel in September that there is a “lack of trust” between South Korea and Japan (aside from tensions that date back to the colonial period, they also have a territorial dispute over an island). This has led to worries in Washington that its two main Asian allies won’t work together.
However, China’s attempt to set up the new air defence zone seems to have alarmed Seoul because it overlaps with South Korea’s equivalent air defence area and includes an island whose sovereignty it likewise disputes with Beijing.
Accordingly the South Korean government called in China’s senior military official in Seoul to conveyits own concerns, expressing disapproval the decision about ADIZ was made without prior consultation.
The Wall Street Journal thinks the “flight issue could cool Seoul’s ties with Beijing”.
The specific fear is that Japanese and Chinese planes might clash in the contested airspace. James Hardy of Jane’s Defence Weekly warned the Wall Street Journal, “at the operational level people make mistakes. When you get fast jets involved, the margin for error is much smaller and the potential for lethality is much greater”.
As WiC has pointed out before, the current situation bears some striking resemblances to the tinderbox mix of alliance and grievance that triggered war in 1914. The current dispute over the islands – elevated by the Japanese government’s claimed purchase of them in 2012 – has parallels with Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908. That enraged neighbouring Serbia and set the pair up for conflict, according to Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (see WiC179 for a fuller explanation of what occurred and how it helped trigger world war).
Another new history of the origins of the First World War is Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace and it also offers lessons that could be relevant today. Some of her depiction of the Kaiser’s Germany is resonant, not least the sense of a rising power (then Germany, now China) being constrained by an existing superpower (then Britain, now the US) and growing increasingly frustrated by the experience.
A theme also explored is Imperial Germany’s naval strategy and its similarity to China’s today.
The architect of pre-1914 German naval power was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. His goal was to build a fleet so large that it would deter Britain’s warships from attacking the German coast. But he reckoned he also had a regional advantage; as a global power Britain had to disperse its fleet around the world, while Germany could concentrate its firepower in the North Sea.
“His aim was to put Britain in a position where the cost of attacking Germany at sea would be too high,” writes MacMillan. “Britain had the biggest navy in the world and aimed to keep it superior in strength to any two other navies: the ‘two power standard’, as it was known. Germany would not try to match that; rather it would build a navy strong enough that Britain would not dare to take it on because in doing so it would run the risk of suffering such damage that it would be left seriously weakened.”
Tirpitz’s strategy was less about going on the offensive and more of an ‘area denial’ approach (to use the military parlance). Britain was to be deterred from entering German waters for fear of losing its big ships.
As Hugh White explains in The China Choice (see WiC173), Beijing has adopted a similar ‘area denial’ strategy. He says that Chinese submarines and ballistic missiles have made it too dangerous for the US navy to move into China’s coastal waters.
“Today China is much more capable of finding and sinking American ships than it was 15 years ago,” White warns. “That has very sharply raised the risks to the United States of sending aircraft carrier and marines to intervene in any crisis involving China. In many situations, deploying extraordinarily valuable ships like aircraft carriers in the face of Chinese sea-denial forces is no longer a viable strategic option for Washington.”
By this he means that the US would have to think much more seriously about sending another carrier fleet into the Taiwan Strait as it did in 1996.
That bring us back to the current brinksmanship over airspace. Clearly, Washington is sending a firm message: it will not buckle as China becomes more assertive, in spite of the military odds having shifted against its navy.
As the BBC’s Washington correspondent Jonny Drummond points out: “No one should be surprised that the US has acted as it has. Washington’s first reaction to China’s unilateral extension of its airspace was robust. The idea that Washington was going to start filing flight plans with China before flying over the East China Sea was a non-starter. But this is more than just a squabble over flight rules.
“Washington is watching China’s military build up, its arguments with neighbours, and its ‘blue water’ ambitions with alarm. For seven decades the US has been the dominant military power in the region. China has given Washington notice that change is afoot. Peaceful management of that change is one of the great strategic challenges of the 21st century.”
Time to focus on China’s new NSC?
The airspace spat over the Diaoyus/ Senkakus is the latest twist in a long-running dispute (first mentioned by WiC in issue 78). But it merits greater attention for another reason: the row comes just days after Beijing announced the formation of a powerful new council designed to deal with threats to China’s national security.
Although its name is not quite the same (it was termed the ‘national security committee’ in the official document announcing its creation), the new body was quickly dubbed as China’s equivalent of Washington’s National Security Council (or NSC). For the South China Morning Post, for instance, the committee was long overdue, as China was the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without a top-level coordinating body for security. John Lee at the University of Sydney told the newspaper that its creation “represents an understanding that the country has outgrown the institutions set up under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping”. China News Week suggested that Beijing had been mulling the concept since as far back as 1997.
Certainly, the People’s Liberation Army has been undergoing an extensive overhaul and is simultaneously being showered with greater resources.
Local academics say the new security body is needed to coordinate activity across of a range of bureaucracies, with one insider telling China News Week that a key goal is better coordination between the military and its diplomatic counterparts.
(Famously, the Chinese tested a new stealth fighter two years ago during a visit by former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Analysts immediately started debating whether this was a calculated warning from the Chinese. Some thought it more likely it was done without the knowledge of former president Hu Jintao, then head of the Central Military Commission.)
If America’s NSC is the model, the new agency will be a fairly tight-knit structure. In Washington it comprises the president and the vice-president, plus the secretaries of state and defence, the chair of the joint chiefs (for military advice) and the head of the CIA (for intelligence purposes). Other experts are brought in on a flexible basis, depending on the topic being discussed.
However, there is one key difference to the American set-up: Xi Jinping has made plain that his NSC will not only deal with security threats from outside China but also domestic ones (Xi referred to these as “dual pressures”).
One of the NSC’s immediate priorities will be homegrown terrorism (following the recent explosion in Tiananmen Square, which the Turkestan Islamic Party now claims to have committed) but it could broaden further into areas that become harder to define, like social stability concerns.
Given the size of the state resources already in place for policing the domestic situation, the more significant part of the NSC’s brief could be the external focus . Certainly, from an international perspective, more clear-thinking and more coordinated action is increasingly going to be required to avoid accidental outcomes.
The past few days have only heightened awareness of this. And the Chinese reaction to the B-52 flights was evidently a considered one. The China Daily reported that the country had reacted with “calm” and merely monitored the US planes. But the next day it sent its own fighters into the disputed airspace.
The upshot of all this airborne activity? Beijing’s enforcement of its zone failed – US, Japanese and South Korean planes have all ignored it. But the Chinese military has enforced a key principle: its own right to fly over the islands. In a strategic sense, Japan has gained nothing in the past week. China has – the de facto ability to send its fighters into a zone that Tokyo previously said was off-limits. Meanwhile, though the US can claim a tactical victory, it comes with consequences. Indeed as the New York Times points out, Beijing’s move has forced Washington to “flesh out” a regional strategy it had preferred to keep vague.
None of this week’s tussles change the basic problem. The airspace over the islands remains contested and the issue of their sovereignty looks as unsolvable as ever. As WiC has warned before, time is not going to heal this problem. Likely it will just get worse.
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