Yesterday, I appeared on China Radio International’s 10-11AM (Beijing Time) panel discussion by landline telephone, this time supposedly to discuss China’s new air defense identification zone (ADIZ). If you listen to the podcast, you will, in my defense, think that it was not my finest hour. In my defense, nnnn points: First, I was outnumbered three to one by the Chinese panelists. (One was based in Hong Kong but was curiously the most belligerently pro-China of the three.) There is typically another guest from Western nations on a panel of four, and the Japanese government was certainly not the only one complaining. Second, the moderator—also Chinese—always gave the last word to a Chinese panelist. No one interrupts on the program; this is not an American talk show. If there’s a better way to make the Chinese arguments look good, ever there was a good way to make China look good, I’d like to know. Third, the moderator steered the show midway away from the talking points into a totally unscripted attack against Japan on history issues. You can see that from the talking points and the answers that I’d prepared, which I’ve pasted below. Now my basic take on the history issues is complicated and takes plenty of time to explain, as an American political scientist discovered the other day (that’s you, PS), which made it even more difficult to fight the three-on-one battle that ensued.
Actually, that was not all. After the opening question and my response, second in line—I thought I got the better of that exchange, but then, who am I to judge?—the director cut in on my line, told me that my line had gone dead. How she knew when I was no longer talking and I could still hear the broadcast though the phone line, I have no idea. Anyway, the line went completely dead after that, broadcast and all. When the line was restored, after maybe a minute or so had passed, another Chinese panelist was responding to the same question (I think). Now this is the second time that something like this had happened, and both times, the moderator went off the script. On the other occasion, the other “Western” panelist turned out to be quite critical of China. Would you believe me if I told you that my line failed and the moderator later decided to go off-script on a whim? On two occasions?
I’ve made it a point to appear on this program as often as I can because of two reasons: One, China is putting a lot of resources into CRI to push its take on Asia through its news programs, largely in developing countries. I think that it’s useful to have what usually turns out to be a voice of dissent against the mainland Chinese perspective on geopolitical issues. Second, CRI has been generally tolerant of my decidedly non-Chinese voice, the moderation relatively fair, even if the questions can be obviously biased. (For better or worse, again, this is not an American talk show.) But I’m beginning to have serious doubts. Am I increasingly being reduced to enhancing the legitimacy of the Chinese worldview under the Xi Jinping regime?
PART I - The current dispute
Is the current crisis in East China Sea inevitable and long overdue?
Inevitable? No and yes. No, because China could have informed its neighbors that it would set up its own air defense identification zone and that all aircraft entering the ADIZ with the intent to enter Chinese airspace would be requested to inform the Chinese civil aviation authorities of their flight plans and the like. But yes, because China appears to have been aware that its maximalist demands went well beyond what other countries were doing with their ADIZs. On the second count, no, if it means that China only now has sufficient air power to effectively administer its ADIZ.
Should China have notified its neighbours and airlines beforehand rather than just set it upon unilaterally? Has China violated international laws?
Yes. But I am not aware of any violation of international laws, although the threat of possible extreme consequences on non-complying aircraft, could, if carried out, be one.
What do you make of the timing of the air-defence identification zone? Has China’s unilateral declaration unwittingly helped Japan to gain international attention and ‘sympathy’ for its stance?
I’m not so sure about the timing. It could mean that China only now has sufficient air power to effectively administer its ADIZ. It could mean that it’s the latest step in changing the status quo around the Senkaku Islands. But no, I don’t think it made Japan look any better in the eyes of third parties, but it certainly made China look worse.
Japan is preparing for a National Security Strategy Document due out at the end of December as well as a draft proposal in which it describes the Chinese as ‘changing the status quo by force’ and that ‘Japan will respond calmly and firmly’ to such attempts. (Bloomberg reports). Likewise, it’s proposing to revise Article 9 which would allow the country to resort to conflicts in order to solve international disputes. What could the Abe administration try next – is there appetite in escalating this dispute?
There is no interest in escalating the dispute but there certainly is plenty of interest in maintaining the status quo, which is administrative control of the Senkaku Islands. China is entering the territorial waters and airspace around Senkaku with regularity. More generally, China is increasing its presence in the East China Sea. I would say that most observers in Japan agree with the Abe administration that China is indeed changing the status quo. As for Article 9, Abe does want to revise it but will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future because coalition partner New Komeito will not let him.
Did Japan miscalculate China?
China certainly caught Japan by surprise. But if anyone miscalculated, it was China—unless it had anticipated the international response and went ahead anyway.
How has the Japanese public reacted to this zone?
Dismay, generally speaking, although there is no sense that the threat to Japanese aircraft is imminent.
Japan, US and South Korea all have an ADIZ whilst China didn’t until the previous weekend. Why the outrage? Is this double-standard?
There is no double standard. The overall outrage is due to the lack of consultation and the excessive demands made on aircraft merely passing through international airspace and the implied threat to those who do not comply. Japan is also worried about the extension of the Chinese ADIZ to Senkaku airspace, but that’s not a major concern of third parties.
What political thinking went into establishing the zone now and Diaoyu Island/Sendaku dispute?
I can only guess. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has stated that the ADIZ has nothing to do with territorial issues. I’ll be happy to take her word for it if China pulls back on its demands on aircraft in transit.
What long-term impact is there for China in setting up this ADIZ in securing its national sovereignty?
None, if China’s foreign ministry spokesperson is to be believed.
Since its creation, USAF B-52 bombers, Japanese fighters, surveillance and AWACS aircraft, and South Korean P3-C Orion maritime have all deliberately gone into the zone without notifying the Chinese – should Beijing be concerned by this?
I assume that this happens all the time. Remember, this is international airspace, and you can’t expect military aircraft to yield to Chinese demands there. Note also that the US announced that the B-52s were unarmed. So, no, China should not be concerned.
This is one of the most heavily-congested airspace for commercial flights in the whole world – could passengers end up being caught up in the dispute?
No. Exactly because this is congested airspace. The Chinese military will do everything to avoid doing anything that the global community might consider an actual threat to civil aviation.
Why did China wait so long to establish its own ADIZ – does it now feel militarily capable to fend off hostile forces that it’s finally ready to flex its muscle?
I assume that China is doing it now because it can, after decades of double-digit defense budget hikes. It would have be embarrassing if China had established an ADIZ without the means to administer it.
Which side do you blame for escalating the crisis?
Obviously China’s maximalist demands on aircraft in transit and the relatively explicit threat. The lack of prior consultations is another, but this one is merely procedural.
PART II – The ADIZ
What is an air-defense identification zone, and how important were they during the Cold War?
-an act of formalizing claims to national security interests
No. In principle, it is a piece of military protocol designed to balance national security concerns with freedom of international airspace.
-ADIZ is created by GPS coordinates
Defined, not created, to be precise.
-ADIZ is considered international airspace so no planes can be shot down but all much identify themselves to the jurisdiction
Well, no one has jurisdiction over international airspace, right? Actually, if a supersonic aircraft makes a straight beam for Beijing and refuses to identify itself, I think that the PLA Air Force would be justified in intercepting it and shooting it down even before it enters Chinese airspace, ADIZ or no ADIZ. The US practice is that only aircraft that intends to enter US airspace is required to identify itself, and that kind of measure should be sufficient to separate legitimate fly-through aircraft from any hypothetical rogue aircraft.
China’s ADIZ requires commercial aircraft flying through air defence zone to provide advance warning even when their final destination is another country. In contrast, commercial aircrafts flying through the US ADIZ are only required to provide advance flight details when they are destined to land in the US. What does this tell you China’s thinking behind this?
We must assume that the Chinese authorities knew exactly what they were doing, so I suspect that the advance warning requirement was instituted to give it an air of sovereign authority, particularly over the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has essentially denied this, though, so this point is now moot. Also, the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that China fears its defense system is not sophisticated enough to weed out potential interlopers from normal civilian traffic.
A number of air defence zones overlap in this instance – how, in theory – can the various powers resolve this? Is negotiation the only way forward? China proposed to sit down with the Japanese to negotiate about this – will the Japanese take up the offer?
China proposed to sit down with the Japanese to negotiate about this? About what, actually? If it involves any talks over the status of the Senkakus, then it’s obviously a no-starter. Anyway, it’s natural that the zones overlap. But yes, there should be talks. But will China be willing to revise its aggressive protocol? Otherwise, talks don’t make sense.
A number of airlines are obeying the identification rule – notably Hong Kong’s, Taiwan’s, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and US carriers though not ANA of Japan Airlines due to pressure from Tokyo. Do these zones put airlines in a difficult position?
Does it make the Chinese authorities happy that the airlines are complying? Well, they shouldn’t, since they are gaining nothing in terms of China’s sovereignty claims while they have managed to anger not only Japan but also the United States, Australia, South Korea, and even the UK. But to answer your question, no, since the airlines are merely bystanders who do not face any imminent physical threat.
PART III - China-Japan-US ties
Was US Vice-president’s tour of the region to do with fence-mending between the neighbours or a show of solidarity with Japan? Is America neutral in this dispute?
East Asia is a priority area for the United States, Asia Pivot or no Asia Pivot, and President failed to show in Bali. The Obama administration needed to do something to reaffirm its commitment without Obama’s physical presence. Vice-President Biden is the US Plan B. But no, the US is not a neutral party; it is directly affected by China’s ADIZ. Don’t the Chinese authorities realize that US military aircraft are directly threatened by the new Chinese edict since they will never reveal their flight plans to them?
-US Vice President said that China’s growing economic and military strength means that it should “bear increasing responsibility to contribute positively to peace and security…by taking steps to reduce the risks of accidental conflict and miscalculation”. -
Yes, China could begin to do that by scaling back its demands on aircraft in transit.
How tricky a task is this for the State Department in DC having to smooth relations between two of your most important partners while standing up for your historic allies against your biggest economic trading partner?
The United States is standing up for its own security interests first and those of its allies a close second. That’s all there is to it.
Is there much in a way of trust between US and China, and US/Japan vs China? Is this a matter of trust?
It’s a matter of doing something about measures that include threats on aircraft transiting through international airspace. The issue will fester until China rectifies it.
Have US-Japan ties also been hurt by this dispute? Would Abe have consulted with the US over their decision to ignore Beijing and ordered commercial airlines to ignore likewise?
No. And no.
Does Japan have a Plan-B if this dispute lingers on?
I don’t think that there is a need for a Plan B. Why would Japan have any use for one?
How would China view America’s stance on the ADIZ – does this chime in with Beijing’s suspicion over America’s pivot to Asia and the western Pacific?
I don’t know, but I think that China should understand that it has overreached on this matter and should take steps to scale back its demands on the aircraft flying through what is, after all, international airspace.
Should US and China develop stronger military-to-military cooperation to build trust?
Of course. We all should.
How do you square US airlines adhering to the rules of the zone with identification and yet, two of its warships have been sent to the area amidst all the rhetoric supporting Japan’s (and South Korea) stance?
Warships? I thought that it was two bombers? There is no US government authority to demand US-based airlines from doing what they consider prudent, but the US military is a totally different animal. This appears to be difficult to understand from a Chinese perspective, where the state essentially can bend the private sector to its will.
With Shinzo Abe in command of a healthy majority in both the lower and upper houses, could this escalate further as his government maintains its position on the islands?
No. Why would the Japanese government want to do anything more than it is doing? It is only trying to maintain the status quo.
PART IV – South Korea
How unenviable a position is South Korea in?
I’m not conversant enough in South Korea’s domestic politics, but I am sure that it is a manageable issue for them. South Korea will expand its ADIZ, and that will be it for the time being.
-The South Korean president and her top defence officials were hosting the Chinese trade counsellor just 3 weeks ago to talk trade.
The British prime minister is in a similar situation. Likewise, the Australian foreign minister. But it’s not their problem. Look, when you’ve alienated so many people who are eager to do business with you, you have to understand that you’ve done something very, very wrong.
Are they torn between their political and strategic loyalty – let alone the presence of US troops on the ground – to America whilst hoping to not offend their biggest economic partner and neighbour, China? What do you expect President Park to do?
Stand firm, but do no more. And that will be fine for South Korea.
Do you believe that China and South Korea can work out these differences behind closed doors and with ease?
No, because China has a problem with everybody because of this, while President Park cannot be seen to back down. Maybe China did do it mainly with the Senkaku Islands in mind. But everyone has been affected.
The two countries’ contention over the submerged reef is the main source of focus – why do you think the South Korean defence zone finishes just north of Ieodo (Korean) and Suyan Rock (China)?
-There’s a South Korean research station and heliport there.
Historical. The ADIZs appear to be the heritage of the 1950s, established by the US military.
Does this dispute with South Korea also put China in an awkward position?
Not by itself. Other than the ADIZ, it’s business as usual.
How intertwined are South Korea and the US especially in defence and strategic matters? Does Seoul have a say in how it wants to deal with the dispute?
Every country appears to have a problem with the Chinese ADIZ as currently construed. The next move is up to China, not South Korea.
Does this represent a setback in China’s effort to wean South Korea off US influence?
Yes. Of course.
Would a peaceful resolution with South Korea represent a diplomatic coup for Beijing? If so, what would that signal to Japan and Washington?
No. China cannot resolve the broader issue of the ADIZ bilaterally.
Can China and South Korea’s shared mistrust of Japan and anger towards its refusal to apologise for past crimes help resolve the bilateral problems more easily?
No. China cannot resolve the broader issue bilaterally.
Conversely, could China’s action encourage a rapprochement between South Korea and Japan whose new leaders are yet to meet in person? What role could America play to foster that?
I doubt it. For essentially the same reason. Countries are responding differently because of their differentiated relationships with China. But the underlying cause is China’s overreach. China must rectify it. Otherwise, the problem will not go away.