East Asia war scenarios are flying thick and fast these days, some amusing, others intriguing, and all spurred by renewed frictions in the East China Sea over Beijing’s November 23 declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. Projections of potential conflict cover all manner of military battles.
Among them: BBC News’ “Risk of conflict in the East China Sea”, Popular Mechanics’ “Here’s What a Shooting War in the East China Sea Might Look Like,” The Malay Mail’s “The coming Red Tide”, and warisboring.com’s “If China’s Airspace Grab Turns Violent”. Also topping online searches for ADIZ material is a five-part article on The Diplomat website, “The Nightmare Scenario: A US-China War,” posted in September last year.
The military musing is no surprise, especially with fighter jets of three nations and two US B-52 intercontinental bombers getting into the picture, along with China’s newly refurbished aircraft carrier sent to the South China Sea. Thankfully, all sides in the brewing tension, while outwardly asserting their positions, seem keen to keep the temperature well away from boiling point—so far.
Despite the dispatch of two unarmed B-52s to flaunt ADIZ rules of notifying China about flight paths and taking ground instructions, US Vice-President Joe Biden, visiting Tokyo and Beijing, called for calm. He told a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo December 3: “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation. This underscores the need for crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication between China and Japan to reduce the risk of escalation.”
While Japan and South Korea, whose own ADIZs overlap with China’s new zone, told their airlines to disregard Beijing’s instructions to aircraft, the U.S. government told American carriers to comply, evidently to avoid any disruption or danger to flights. China, for its part, held back patrol aircraft from aggressive action, prompting even state media to urge more visible enforcement of the zone, so China would not look weak.
What was China thinking?
But make no mistake about it: Despite the prudent wish to avoid war, China is pursuing a long-term strategy for enhancing its security position far beyond its coastline, and both the ADIZ and the Liaoning deployment are part of that plan. And that unrelenting push will almost surely escalate tensions and confrontation in the region, especially for the United States and its allies nearest China, Japan and the Philippines.
So what were Chinese President Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders thinking when they marked out the ADIZ just as he neared a year in office, to the consternation of the neighbors and superpower America? The experts see three reasons.
First, China is adding teeth in its claim over the Senkaku/Diayutai Islands, now under Japan’s control. To enforce and monitor the air defense zone, Chinese planes will now patrol the skies above the disputed area. Tokyo has opposed such flights over its claimed territory. If it doesn’t stop them now for fear of conflict, Beijing would take one step in the drive for control of the islands.
In Beijing’s eyes, moreover, the South China Sea training voyage of the Liaoning, a refurbished Ukrainian aircraft carrier, asserts China’s claimed sovereignty over nearly the entire body of water under its “nine-dash line” demarcation, first announced by the former Nationalist regime back in 1947. It helps Beijing’s assertion that only one top Southeast Asian official criticized the Liaoning’s saling: Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who wants the US to counter China’s growing might.
A second factor cited by analysts for the ADIZ move is the need for the new administration of President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang to consolidate power and push sweeping economic reforms, which will inevitably generate opposition from powerful vested interests in the bureaucracy, local governments, and business groups. As with any external challenge, harnessing the armed forces to assert territorial claims against foreign nations lines up both the people and the military behind the government.
One sector of particular concern for the Xi regime are the more socialist-minded, liberalization-wary, highly nationalistic officials in the government and the military. Their perceived champion was Bo Xilai, ousted in April 2012 from the ruling Communist Party Politburo amid rumors of an aborted power grab by his supporters.
This past September, the former Commerce Minister and Chongqing party boss was jailed for life on corruption charges. By confronting foreign powers through the ADIZ and the Liaoning voyage, Xi wraps himself in the flag, hoping to win over patriotic factions— including Bo’s.
Toward the First Island Chain
Hong Kong-based Chinese-language newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan, the former sister publication of the defunct Asiaweek magazine, cited the third reason for China’s latest air and sea gambits: the First Island Chain strategy. Under this defense plan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) missile, air force and navy will seek military dominance in the East and South China Seas, which are marked out by the so-called First Island Chain from the Japanese islands to the Philippines and Borneo.
Securing these waters is crucial to countering any blockade of China’s commerce, including four-fifths of its oil imports flowing through the South China Sea. With potentially hostile forces all around those waters, plus the reach and firepower of the US Seventh Fleet, interdicting ships bound for or sailing from China can easily be done, say seasoned security experts.
Over time, the PLA must then build up its rocket, naval and aviation capabilities to challenge and eventually dominate potential adversaries within the First Island Chain. The ADIZ and Liaoning deployments, along with the decades-long buildup of military installations in the South China Sea, advance this strategy to secure China’s sealanes.
And China will continue its martime security initiatives for the foreseeable future. Already, its ambassador in Manila, Ma Keqing, asserted the sovereign right to establish another ADIZ over a different region. America and its allies will likely move to match the PLA in the air and on the high seas.
With the impending expansion of US military rotations in the archipelago, the Philippines is now a frontline state in Washington’s effort to counter Beijing’s force deployment, as West Germany was in the US.-Soviet confrontation in Europe. That can only bring more security tensions for the nation.
Excerpt of The CenSEI Report analysis of the emerging regional security situation. For the full study, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.