Taiwan Air Force Lt. Gen. Liu Shou-Jen introduces a map of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea on Monday. (AFP/Getty Images)
TAIPEI — China’s air defense identification zone in the East China Sea reaches beyond the military challenge it poses to the US and allies in the region, with insidious implications on continued US diplomatic, economic and political power in the Asia-Pacific, according to US experts on Chinese military strategy.
In fact, it’s all part of China’s attempts to overturn the existing order and replace it with its own interpretation of international rules and norms, they said.
The announcement Nov. 23 has put the US on notice that China cares not what the US thinks or wants in the region. It has disrupted US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the region to discuss economics and trade. China’s zone has also shaken the confidence of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan on US security guarantees and led to fears the US has lost the ability to influence China permanently.
Sources indicate China appears emboldened by decades of economic, military and political growth to push the envelope on a weakened US, fraught with defense budget cuts, congressional division and hobbled by colossal debt. Would China have created the zone a decade ago when the US was at the height of its military, economic and diplomatic power? China is not attempting to join the international order created by the US after World War II but is instead an opportunist ready to profit from what it perceives as a decline of US power in the region, experts said.
The new zone seems “purposely constructed so as to be contentious,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, and a former CIA analyst. It overlaps with similar zones established by three Asian neighbors, as well as the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, he said.
Just as confusing and controversial is China’s insistence that civilian airliners entering the zone identify themselves, even if they are simply passing through. “No other [air identification zone] requires this kind of notification,” Bitzinger said. It also demands that all military aircraft entering the zone identify themselves or face “defensive emergency measures,” he said.
China’s economic and military growth has given it a sense of destiny reminiscent of Japan’s “ham-handed” political moves in Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, said Bob Nugent, vice president of naval advisory services at AMI International. “A telling indicator of whether this is more method or madness on China’s part will be when/whether a similar zone is declared in the South China Sea,” he said.
Bitzinger said Beijing’s foreign policy has become captive of rampant “populist nationalism” driven by an “official narrative of [Western] humiliation.”
A Sense of Victimhood
China has become a country of victims who have convinced themselves that China will never again suffer at the hands of imperialist agents. Chinese newspapers and websites continually remind the reader that the West stole Hong Kong, Taiwan, Diaoyu and the South China Sea, and before it can once again become a great nation, it must become whole again.
Bitzinger said this “sense of ‘victimhood’ could spur Beijing into becoming ever more intransigent in pressing its territorial claims in the adjoining seas, up to and including military action.”
Sources indicate China’s identification zone in the East China Sea will no doubt be expanded to include the South China Sea and Yellow Sea, in what appears to be China’s continuation of a “creeping sovereignty” campaign, said Sam Tangredi, director of Strategic Insight.
South Korea is also getting nervous with recent assertions China plans to declare a zone in the Yellow Sea as a wedge against US military forces from responding to a North Korean crisis. In response to China’s announcement, Seoul plans to expand its own air identification zone to better protect territorial disputes in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea.
China’s zone forces neighboring states to accept China’s version of international law, that is, that they recognize they don’t have the power to influence China to conform with international security norms, Tangredi said. If the US accepts China’s strictures, then Beijing hopes that sends a signal throughout Asia that the US acknowledges it is becoming militarily weaker in the region.
Tangredi, the author of a new book, “Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies,” asks, “if the US is militarily weaker and China is growing stronger — would that not be a disincentive to allow the US access to regional land bases lest one place itself within China’s cross-hairs?”
Tangredi warned that countries build “great walls” not to keep “barbarians” out, but rather to consolidate territory within those walls. Rome’s Hadrian Wall, Germany’s Limes Germanicus and China’s Great Wall were not necessarily needed to keep out foreign forces, but to consolidate power and weed out resistance within those walls. It would also prevent outside powers from intervening to reverse any Chinese offensive activities against those resisting Chinese military force within its walls.
The East China Sea zone does not hinder US forces coming from Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines, but it does suggest the US should be prepared for future announcements of additional zones in the South China Sea in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan.
China’s efforts to create an elaborate zone in the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and South China Sea will require more than just talk. Beyond its land-based fighter aircraft, China will also have to field its new J-15 Flying Shark carrier-borne fighters from three planned aircraft carrier builds and an elaborate network of ships equipped with air defense radars and surface-to-air missiles. China has 14 guided-missile destroyers and is building more.
Beefing up China’s military to patrol and safeguard its zones will take some doing and this is where the air defense declaration also helps in other areas, namely political.
In part, the zone has a diplomatic and political dimension, said Bernard Cole, author of the book, “The Great Wall at Sea” and a China naval specialist at the National War College. Cole said the air defense announcement is largely a “political declaration than anything that contributes materially to the military capability to carry out” anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD).
“The Chinese [zone] represents an attempt to impose a new normal in an important part of maritime Asia, and thus a challenge of the first order,” said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The “onus” is on China to comply with international norms on overflight freedoms in air defense zones, he said. At the same time, the burden is on them to enforce their zone.
“This is a dance that the Chinese have imposed on themselves, if they want to be taken seriously about the [zone],” Yoshihara said, who co-authored the seminal book, “Red Star Over the Pacific.” He said this assumes that the Chinese interpret the air defense zone and the associated rules of engagement in the same ways others observe the zone. The problem is if China attempts to “overreach like they do about the exclusive economic zone,” then this is a “potentially more combustible situation, ... [and] it is this ambiguity that is worrisome,” he said.
China’s declaration does not add any military advantage during peacetime, Tangredi said. “Rather, it is intended to force neighboring states to accept China’s version of international law ... to recognize that they are perceived as too weak to convince or force China to conform to international norms.”
A peacetime zone “acclimatizes” regional neighbors “to having their aircraft challenged and requesting permission from Chinese aviation authorities for overflight in areas of China’s choosing,” Tangredi said. “In order to avoid increased costs for civilian aviation activities having to fly around the [zone], one merely need to ‘kowtow’ to” China. After having become “acclimatized to one [zone], regional neighbors become less resistant to other [zones] as China ‘legally,’ as a precedence establishing legal custom, attempts to exclude or control US naval and air activities in the Asia-Pacific during peacetime.”
All of this has the potential of backfiring on China and unintentionally giving the US Asia-pivot strategy a much-needed boost after lethargic interest among regional allies and friends.
“Growing Chinese aggression in the region — or even just the appearance of it — could greatly aid Washington in revitalizing this pivot and in bringing new regional partners into the effort,” Bitzinger said.
Mark Stokes, executive director, Project 2049 Institute, believes this is a good time for the US to re-evaluate its policy toward Taiwan. It could begin by expanding military-to-military exchanges, drop travel restrictions to Taiwan for US military flag officers, and allow for joint military exercises. The only other alternative is to allow China to swallow up the island. ■