Over the weekend, China announced an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea, which includes waters and islands claimed by both China and Japan.
The zone requires airlines to formally inform China of any flight plans over the area. Failure to do so would allow Chinese air authorities, including the national air force, to take ‘defensive emergency measures’ against any infringing commercial or military aircraft.
Predictably, Japan and the United States have condemned the move as provocative – which it is. But this is consistent with China’s strategy over disputed maritime territories and islands in the East and South China Seas. It is all about getting the region used to Chinese control over these territories, and normalising Beijing’s claims even if the sovereignty issue remains unsettled. The problem is that China, the US and its allies have no idea where the ‘red lines’ are. This is a recipe for miscalculation and possible disaster.
In practice, this new Chinese ADIZ will not involve any great changes in a practical sense. Commercial aircraft flying over the zone may now have to inform Beijing air traffic authorities, but that is straightforward and not necessarily controversial.
It will be more awkward when Japanese and American military aircraft fly over these zones. It is unlikely that they will do China the courtesy of informing the authorities of their activities, but that is part of the cat-and-mouse game. Beijing’s move to declare the ADIZ simply gives China another formal reason to protest allied military activity in what it sees as its territory. But Japan and the US will simply ignore this.
Without going into the historical background of the various sovereignty issues, what is China up to? Beijing’s approach is summed up by what experts such as Ian Storey from Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies refer to as a ‘talk and take’ approach.
On the one hand, China seeks to reassure regional states that it is committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute. But it will insist that such discussion should only take place between itself and the other claimant at a bilateral level. When it comes to the South China Sea, it is refusing to discuss issues with other claimants in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei as a collective.
China is even more emphatic that outside powers do not become involved in the negotiations – even as a broker. It is particularly eager to exclude the US from involvement for the reason that Beijing’s powers of negotiation and even intimidation would be severely reduced if Washington is involved.
While China is prepared to engage in bilateral discussion of these claims, it is prepared to defer the issue of sovereignty (who actually owns what) for a future time.
It figures its delaying tactics are a good strategy because ‘time is on its side’: China will only grow stronger while the US will eventually accept a lesser role in the region. Remember that without a fully engaged America in the Asia-Pacific, there is less prospect of an effective balance or hedge against Chinese power.
This is where the ‘talk and take’ approach comes into play. Beijing’s strategy is to change the territorial and maritime status quo through a series of small but progressive actions designed to exercise ‘creeping sovereignty’ over the disputed territories.
The ADIZ is a perfect example. In the South China Sea, measures have included announcing that China-owned Hainan Island is the formal administrative capital for the disputed islands in the body of water. Chinese flags have been planted on the ocean floor of disputed waters, a symbolic statement of sovereignty. Disputed islands are included in the tourist maps of ‘Chinese tours’. There has been a massive increase in the number of Chinese military and civilian ships entering disputed areas in both the East and South China Seas in order to normalise Chinese control over these areas. Central authorities administer hydro-carbon mining rights and fishing licences to Chinese and foreign entities in disputed zones.
None of these individual moves have been dramatic enough to provoke a violent response from claimants or the US, or to even amount to a ‘crisis’. But collectively they add up to an assertive and even aggressive approach that is designed to ensure that Chinese control eventually becomes a fait accompli.
The region is well aware of this ‘talk and take’ strategy but is uncertain about what countries should do about it, either individually or collectively. Meanwhile, Beijing will alternate between conciliation and assertiveness in its diplomacy, even as it continues to solidify its control over these regions.
These are conditions for miscalculation, especially given that Beijing has next to no ‘hotlines’ with other claimants, such as Japan. Indeed, at American insistence, Washington has far better connections with counterparts in Beijing than any other capital. The military-to-military links and interpersonal connections between senior American and Chinese military officers are also superior to what China has with other regional countries.
If there is a serious incident at sea between China and an American ally such as Japan or the Philippines, it is likely that the diplomatic intervention of Washington will be needed to de-escalate the situation.
So far, incidents have not escalated into violence. But the number of incidents at sea involving Chinese vessels is rising, and there is no certainty that all future events will be defused.
While the Chinese strategy evolves, other claimants in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are finding it more and more difficult to back down, as Beijing’s ‘salami-slicing’ approach is strengthening Beijing’s de facto claims of sovereignty bit by bit.
In the case of Japan and possibly the Philippines, America is committed to defending its treaty ally, which will have difficult implications for Australia.
A solution is beyond this author. But the point is that Beijing’s territorial ‘salami slicing’ means that merely returning to the table to ‘talk’ while China continues to ‘take’ is no solution at all.
Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.