Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Spat over Spratly Islands

9 JUNE 2015: When China established its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013, over the East China Sea, largely as a riposte to Japan’s actions over the Diaoyutai Islands (Senkaku), it set alarm bells ringing. China is entangled in maritime disputes over land, resources, and military staging points, with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and reclamation in the disputed Spratly Islands – ostensibly to develop a landing strip – has prompted fresh US-China eyeballing. Then came hints at the possibility of a South China Sea ADIZ.

China is flexing its muscle and creating strategic depth to protect its national interests. How does the world see this? Critically, for the most part. While China’s neighbours are shrill in their condemnation. Xinhua maintains China’s actions are very much within its “sovereign rights”. And Beijing quickly offered a sop to detractors by promising any new constructions "will not threaten freedom of navigation and overflight." (CNN).

This new ADIZ may be a red herring and a non-starter. Feng Zhang writes in Foreign Policy, that China has lost the element of surprise in any future establishment of a South China Sea ADIZ and it lacks domestic pressure to take a hard stance on this. He concludes that, “imposing an ADIZ will have serious negative consequences for China’s generally good relations with many Southeast Asian countries, and with the regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Why should Beijing want to damage those relationships, when promoting a 21st-century maritime Silk Road through Southeast Asia represents a far more important priority for President Xi Jinping?”

Writes the Chicago Tribune, “ It [China] is a rising military power, but its future prosperity depends on its ability to cooperate with others. China may be a force, but in terms of global relationships, it isn't an island.“ Nevertheless, while not naming China, G7 leaders issued a joint statement on 4 June, 2014 declaring, "We oppose any unilateral attempt by any party to assert its territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force."

There is growing unease among China’s neighbours. Vietnam News suggests, these “highly provocative actions prove China... is actively seeking to re-establish a China-dominated regional order." Filipino President Aquino appeared to agree in a report by The Philippine Star where he "drew a parallel between present-day China and Nazi Germany, hinting the world cannot continue to appease Beijing."

Jin Canrong, an international relations specialist from Renmin University, quoted by South China Morning Post, feelsthat any US reprisal in the region would "definitely force the People's Liberation Army to seriously consider military action." China’s clout and maritime muscle is very much a reality.

Trying to calm tensions, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou suggested a peace plan (The Guardian, 26 May, 2015) urging “claimants to temporarily shelve their disagreements to enable negotiations on sharing resources. Ma’s plan is similar to a 2012 proposal for the East China Sea, which allowed Taiwan and Japan to jointly fish in the contested waters.”

The US continues to express concerns about China's rapid military expansion. US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Harry Harris was quoted by Singapore’s Straits Times as saying, "China is creating a Great Wall of Sand." One that Clive Schofield in CNN believes, “is unlikely to wash away any time soon." – Asian Conversations