Beijing’s declaration last week of a special air defence identification zone above disputed islands in the East China Sea and the surrounding waters claimed by Japan and China is a clear escalation of an already dangerous situation. It might be tempting for commentators at this stage to digress into describing the torturous history of the disputed Chinese or Japanese sovereignty over these uninhabited rocks, to provide context for how the two great nations of Asia have virtually drawn daggers over barren island territories in a distant corner of the Pacific Ocean. Yet, the deeply unwise and provocative new Chinese decree of unspecified military measures in the event of unauthorised entry into this airspace has served to dramatically broaden the regional context of this bilateral stand-off.
This matter is no longer simply about duelling nationalisms in China and Japan. It now concerns the peace, security and safety of some of the most frequently utilised civilian airspace on the planet, and a critical air route used regularly by Chinese (yes, even Chinese airliners might conceivably be at risk), Taiwanese, Korean, US, Japanese, Russian and other carriers traversing the region that is generally regarded as the cockpit of the global economy. Into an already fraught set of circumstances, China has introduced the possibility of civilian airliners loaded with tourists, families and businessmen now at risk simply for flying through a block of airspace in the western Pacific.
China is well-known for nursing historical grievances and for having a long memory, but it must be said that this memory is generally saved for things Chinese. However, the animating concern in the case of this new airspace decree is not a perceived century of humiliation but rather something much more specific: the tragic shooting down by Soviet fighters of Korean Air Lines flight KE007 in 1983 during the cold war flying through another murky set of flight identification procedures.
For the Chinese government not to understand that their new airspace guidelines would immediately conjure memories of one of the most regrettable and avoidable air tragedies in history is worrisome. It creates unwelcome comparisons between the former Soviet Union with today’s China, and it suggests a coming propensity for Beijing to tempt militarisation of difficult diplomatic problems. This move also potentially averts the recent remarkable improvements in Sino-South Korean relations – one of the only positive trends in northeast Asia in recent years. It also comes on the eve of the visit of Vice-President Joe Biden to China who worked overtime last year to develop a strong personal connection with then vice-president Xi Jinping. All told, it is a remarkablemisstep for China’s diplomacy that is seeking to build better ties with virtually everyone in the region, save for Japan and the Philippines. It suggests a nation more interested in the pursuit of 19th century-like spheres of influence and prohibited areas, rather than a 21st-century nation committed to sustaining an open and transparent regional operating system.
The Chinese decree has created an enormous conundrum for surrounding countries. The US has already indicated that its military planes will not acknowledge these new Chinese government procedures, and will continue operations as if nothing has changed. But already civilian aviation authorities, including the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, have instructed civilian airliners to abide by the new regulations precisely to avoid another KE007 calamity. Their finding is fundamentally apolitical in these strained circumstances, based almost solely on fulfilling their prime directive, which is the global safety of civilian aviation. This potential split between military and civilian authorities creates administrative confusion but, more importantly, it creates uncertainty in the airspace. How will the Chinese air defence authorities respond to what they think is a military airliner brazenly defying repeated hails that turns out to be a commercial jet with a broken transponder loaded with unsuspecting travellers? Will “emergency defensive measures” be taken as the new Chinese decree indicates?
It is true that many other nations have established air defence identification zones, including the US, South Korea, Guam and Japan, yet none has ever sparked this degree of concern. It smacks of what Chinese commentators occasionally accuse the US of: a cold war mentality.
China must now decide whether to retract its controversial edict, phase it out over time with little fanfare (preferably in the short term) or try to tailor it to more specific circumstances. How China responds to the confusion and consternation created by this new defence measure will tell a lot about what kind of a great power China is becoming.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs.