16 February 2019
A Japanese patrol plane flies above a disputed island in  the East China Sea. Photo: AFP
A Japanese patrol plane flies above a disputed island in the East China Sea. Photo: AFP

WEEKENDER: Warplanes add to East China Sea tensions

Tension has engulfed the skies over the East China Sea this week after China established on Nov. 23 an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which covers the disputed Diaoyu islands, or the Senkaku as they are known in Japan.

Defying China’s move, which requires all aircraft passing through the zone to submit their flight plans to Beijing, the United States flew two unarmed B-52 bombers into the ADIZ on Tuesday. Japan and South Korea also said on Thursday they had sent military aircraft into the zone without notifying Beijing. They met no opposition from China’s air force.

A Chinese air force spokesman, Col. Shen Jinke, said on Thursday China had sent a KJ-2000 early warning aircraft and several Sukhoi Su-30 and J-11 jet fighters into the zone. Xinhua reported such patrols would become regular in the future “to strengthen the identification and surveillance of flying objects in the ADIZ”.

Shen maintained the patrols were defensive and aligned with international practice. The air force would remain on high alert and “adopt proper measures to respond to different threats in the air to firmly guarantee air security”, the state news agency quoted him as saying.

The latest tension in the East China Sea flared less than a fortnight after the Communist Party concluded a central committee plenum in Beijing.

Although the main theme of the four-day plenum was the deepening of economic reforms, the ruling elite also decided to set up a national security committee, which is said to be similar to the US National Security Council. The idea had been broached when former party general secretary Jiang Zemin was in power.

Tipped to be led by President Xi Jinping, the high-powered body is expected to help boost the party’s capability in grappling with the increasingly complex and sensitive geopolitical and global security issues.

China has upgraded its game plan on national security as it realized the vital importance of securing a stable environment in the Asia-Pacific region and the world in order to safeguard its interests. That has become all the more important now that the Chinese economy is the world’s second largest in terms of gross domestic product, trailing the US.

Gone are the days when Chinese leaders stuck religiously to the instructions made by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping for the country to “keep their heads low, hide their energy” and seize the opportunity to modernize to catch up with the Western powers.

Flying the banner of leading the 1.3 billion people to realize the “China Dream” since taking helm of the party in November, Xi has adopted a more assertive approach in foreign policy. Plans to speed up the internationalization of the renminbi have also been seen as part of the grand plan to counterbalance, if not challenge, the US dollar-dominated international financial order.

The US and its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, might feel jittery over China’s ADIZ move and view it with skepticism. But Chinese authorities insist it is only for defense and a belated move to reassert the nation’s sovereign rights over the Diaoyu.

During a recent media session, a People’s Liberation Army spokesman said Japan announced its own ADIZ way back in 1969, which meant China’s move was “44 years late”. Asked if Beijing would scrap the ADIZ, he said: “Ask Japan to do it first, we will consider doing so 44 years after that.”

The tit-for-tat response from the Chinese military speaks of the thinking prevalent among those in the nation’s highest echelon of power that they have only acted to respond to the change of circumstances.

Since Japan made the first move in changing the status quo in the Diaoyu row through its nationalization plan last year, Beijing feels that such moves as formal submission of the sea baselines of the Diaoyu to the United Nations in September last year were belated attempts to set their record of ownership of the islands.

The swift and high-profile responses to China’s ADIZ from the US and its allies are largely political gesturing and mind games. Although the possibility of accidental military clashes in the region has grown, the likelihood of major conflicts remains slim for now.

The flexing of military muscles, however, could have other consequences — be they intended or not — such as the growth of nationalist sentiments among their own people. In the US, the Wall Street Journal wrote that President Barack Obama must act to show his “pivot” policy in the region is not just a slogan. In China, the official media has been careful not to stoke nationalist sentiments over the ADIZ issue at a time when the nation is not yet ready for a major war and its priorities are still economic development and livelihood improvement.

Media reports said Xi made an inspection trip to the eastern province of Shandong between Sunday and Thursday. Premier Li Keqiang, meanwhile, was visiting the Middle East and European countries. Next week, Chinese leaders will hold talks with US Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to raise the ADIZ issue. Biden’s visit to Beijing will be perfectly timed for both sides to ease tensions in the region through top-level diplomacy.

After all, neither side would like to go to war or risk sparking even minor military clashes in the region, which could have unintended consequences.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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