BEIJING – China’s new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea further asserts its territorial claims over disputed islands but isn’t expected to immediately spark confrontations with foreign aircraft.
Yet the move fits a pattern of putting teeth behind China’s claims and could potentially lead to dangerous encounters depending on how vigorously Beijing enforces it — and how cautious it is when intercepting aircraft from Japan, the U.S. and other countries. While enforcement is expected to start slowly, Beijing has a record of playing the long game, and analysts say they anticipate a gradual scaling-up of activity.
Beijing on Saturday issued a map of the zone — which includes a cluster of islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China — and a set of rules that say all aircraft entering the area must notify Chinese authorities and are subject to emergency military measures if they do not identify themselves or obey Beijing’s orders.
The declaration seems to have flopped as a foreign policy gambit. Analysts say Beijing may have miscalculated the forcefulness and speed with which its neighbors rejected its demands.
Washington, which has hundreds of military aircraft based in the region, says it has zero intention of complying. Japan likewise has called the zone invalid, unenforceable and dangerous, while Taiwan and South Korea, both close to the U.S., also rejected it.
At least in the short term, the move undermines Beijing’s drive for regional influence, said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It doesn’t serve Chinese interests to have tensions with so many neighbors simultaneously,” she said.
Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said China’s enforcement will likely be mostly rhetorical at first.
“The Chinese can now start counting and reporting what they call Japanese violations, while arguing that the Chinese side has shown great restraint by not exercising what they will call China’s right to shoot, and arguing further that China cannot be so patient indefinitely,” Roy said.
China also faces practical difficulties deriving from gaps in its air-to-air refueling and early warning and control capabilities, presenting challenges in both detecting foreign aircraft and keeping its planes in the air, according to Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore.
Despite that, Beijing has shown no sign of backing down, just as it has continued to aggressively enforce its island claims in the South China Sea over the strong protests from its neighbors.
Tensions remain high with Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku by Japan, Daioyu by China and Diaoyutai by Taiwan, which also claims them. Beijing was incensed by Japan’s September 2012 move to nationalize the chain.
Since then, Chinese and Japanese coast guard ships have regularly confronted each other in surrounding waters. Japan further angered Beijing last month by threatening to shoot down unmanned Chinese drones that Beijing says it plans to send on surveillance missions over the islands.
Beijing’s move was greeted rapturously by hard-line Chinese nationalists, underscoring the leadership’s need to assuage the most vocal facet of domestic public opinion. Strategically, it also serves to keep the island controversy alive in service of Beijing’s goal of forcing Tokyo to accept that the islands are in dispute — a possible first step to joint administration or unilateral Chinese control over them.
Beijing was also responding in kind to Japan’s strict enforcement of its own air defense zone in the East China Sea, said Dennis Blasko, an Asia analyst at think tank CNA’s China Security Affairs Group and a former U.S. Army attache in Beijing.
The Japanese zone, in place since the 1960s, overlaps extensively with the newly announced Chinese zone. Japan, which keeps a public record of all foreign incursions into its zone, actually extended it westward by 22 km in May.
Blasko and others say much still depends on China’s plans for implementation, but cite as a frightening precedent the 2001 collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and an overly-aggressive Chinese fighter over the South China Sea that killed the Chinese pilot and sparked a major diplomatic crisis.
June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami, said she would expect Beijing to pause until overseas criticisms die down, then engineer a diplomatic incident by warning off Japanese military aircraft without physically confronting them.
China further complicated matters by not consulting others on the protocols it expects them to follow, or the rules of engagement for Chinese pilots, said Ross Babbage, chair of Australia’s Kokoda Foundation, a security think tank.
“This is the kind of situation that clearly has the potential to escalate,” Babbage said.