Tension continues to simmer over China’s newly-declared ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone). America has encouraged its civilian aircraft to comply in the interest of passenger safety but refuses to recognize the zone’s validity, stating that American military surveillance flights will continue to operate as normal. Japan has taken the matter to the International Civil Aviation Organization and has vowed to rally the support of the international community to put pressure on China to rescind the zone.
China's neighbours including Korea are getting anxious. The United States, as the status quo guarantor of regional security, is rightfully alarmed. Vice President Joe Biden is to raise US concern and seek clarification during his forthcoming visit to Beijing.
What game is China playing?
First, many countries have such identification zones. The United States was the first to set them up many years ago. Japan's version likewise covers the disputed islands with China. Now China announces her own zone so that she can have a legal basis to be treated equally.
Second, China hopes that her zones will be accepted as a norm as in the case of other countries. If so, they will strengthen China's continuing territorial claims in the region, including the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands under dispute with Japan. They will also boost China's air defenses following America's Asian Pivot military strategy.
Third, none of the three parties involved wants a war. Japan needs to re-jig her economy. Rising nationalism notwithstanding, her people do not relish a repeat of aggressive militarism leading to Japan's inglorious end in the Second World War. American constituencies are more concerned about jobs and the economy. They have grown tired of wars and are unlikely to risk blood and treasure over some rocks in the East China Sea. As for China, the new leadership has just unveiled a massive reform package. Peace rather than war is necessary to deliver the goods.
Fourth, most of China’s neighbours have China as the largest trading partner, providing them with jobs and investment. However, they also rely on the American pivot, re-worded as ""re-balancing", as a military hedge against a rising China. On her part, China feels that this is a trap to embroil her in a regional conflict while she is trying to double her economy to become a middle-income country. So, in a power play, China is likely to prefee a much stronger hand of economic prowess rather than confronting a far superior military adversary.
Fifth, the biggest prize for China is not the tiny Diaoyu/Senkaku islands but Taiwan. Strait-relations are now on a more peaceful course, economically, socially, and financially. While formal unification may well remain a pipe-dream, the prospect of Taiwan coming back to China’s fold in one form or another in the not-so-distant future is becoming less illusive (*). Time is on China’s side. If China is involved in a regional war now, no matter what the outcome would be, this would dash the hope of any peaceful "unification" by another name, perhaps indefinitely, in view of Taiwan’s special relationship with America.
Sixth, according to Trefor Moss, formerly Asia-Pacific Editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, there are seven reasons why China won't go to war with Japan (**). These are (a) a nightmare possibility for China of an ignominious defeat (b) mutual economic dependence (c) doubts about China’s military readiness (d) unsettled politics in China (e) unknown quantity of U.S. intervention (f) China’s consistent policy of avoiding military confrontation and (g) China’s hard-earned peaceful development image. So Moss suggests that "Abe should be able to push back against China – so long as he doesn’t go too far", and "It is also timely for Japan to push back now, while its military is still a match for China’s. Five or ten years down the line this may no longer be the case, even if Abe finally grows the stagnant defense budget".
Seventh, notwithstanding many valid constraints on China's military option, there is the burning issue of mounting nationalism of the Chinese people, especially against an old foe who is popularly perceived as not showing any genuine atonement for atrocious war crimes in China. Coupled with China's centuries of national humiliation at the hands of foreign aggressors, this is an overwhelming historical baggage no Chinese leaders could afford to treat with less than the full might of the nation if things are pushed too far, Japan's US defense treaty notwithstanding. This is buttressed by China’s vastly modernised military, including a full range of “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD), cyber and other asymmetric warfare capabilities as well as survivable long-range nuclear missile and submarine deterrence. It is no surprise that China decides to demonstrate her resolve on territorial integrity by dispatching her newly-fitted aircraft carrier battle-group to a military exercise in the South China Sea.
Eighth, neither China nor Japan with the U.S. can afford to appear weak to their respective political constituents. Hence, a game of chicken is being played. What is more, China wishes to normalize treatment of her status as a great power. President Xi, ahead of his earlier historic tête-à-tête with President Obama at a holiday retreat at Sunnylands, said that he wished to create "a new type of relations between major powers". He wanted to debunk the popular thinking that rising powers inevitably come to a crash with existing major powers, as in the case of the two World Wars. Click here But first, he opted to start from a position of strength.
However, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, all parties are well advised to put in place cooling-off mechanisms to prevent unintended consequences whereby any one side has no choice but to respond militarily. This would trigger a “security spiral” escalating into a full-blown catastrophic regional and possibly global war. Such mechanisms could include, for example, arrangements for a narrowly-defined "no-fly zone" and "de-militarized sensitive waters" near these disputed islands to prevent direct air or sea clashes. These should be supported by emergency hot-lines at the highest levels between China, Japan and the United States, coupled with pre-determined mediation procedures through the United Nations where necessary.
Regardless of geopolitical calculations, the last thing the world wants is a regional war of unpredictable proportions. The Rubicon must not be crossed.
(*) In “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power”(Basic Books 2012), Zbigniew Brzezinski, a doyen of American foreign policy, sees as historically inevitable that Taiwan may form some sort of a more formal re-association with Mainland China, subject to satisfactory arrangements to preserve its distinctive political, social, and military identity.
(**) 7 Reasons China and Japan Won't Go To War, Trefor Moss, in The Diplomat, 10 February, 2013 http://thediplomat.com/2013/02/7-reasons-china-and-japan-wont-go-to-war/ (accessed on 28 November, 2013)