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Does China ADIZ take focus off ‘real enemy’?

To many experts, Beijing's foreign policy is a byproduct of domestic issues

by Max Fisher

The Washington Post

China has one of the largest and most consequential militaries in the world, but how Beijing thinks about its military and makes military decisions is largely a mystery to the outside world. The People’s Liberation Army is technically attached to the Chinese Communist Party, rather than to the Chinese government, and scholars often describe it as a “black box” because it is so difficult to understand from the outside.

Last week’s decision by China to impose a special air defense identification zone over international waters was one such mystery. China announced that any foreign flights into the ADIZ would have to alert Beijing first and file a formal flight plan. The outcome was entirely predictable: The United States immediately violated China’s requirement by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers into the zone, basically a way of announcing that the U.S. would ignore China’s requirement. Japan and South Korea also sent in flights. China’s ADIZ not only failed, it backfired, embarrassing China while further uniting Japan, South Korea and the U.S. against Chinese military assertiveness.

So why did China do it? Why impose an air defense zone that was so likely to fail in its most apparent goal of enforcing greater Chinese control over nearby international waters?

There are two different categories of explanation for this bizarre incident. The first is simple incompetence; Chinese leaders did not anticipate that things would work out this poorly for their air defense zone. The second is that perhaps Chinese leaders did foresee this response but went ahead anyway because their primary goal was not actually establishing an air defense zone at all.

For all the importance of China’s foreign policy, Chinese leaders tend to be far more concerned with domestic issues. President Xi Jinping has to worry about high-risk economic changes he’s making, the increasingly noisy demands of a rising middle class, resurgent nationalism, environmental degradation, dire food safety — the list goes on and on. So, for many China-watchers, it makes more sense to look at China’s foreign policy as a byproduct of these domestic issues rather than as foreign policy for the sake of foreign policy.

Robert E. Kelly, a scholar of East Asian international relations at Pusan National University, suggests that the Communist Party was hoping to boost its own internal legitimacy by appearing to challenge Japan.

“The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) may not want a conflict with Japan, but it’s been telling Chinese youth for 20(plus) years that Japan is greatly responsible for the ’100 years of humiliation,’ ” Kelly wrote on his Asian security issues blog. “So now the CCP is stuck; they have to be tough on Japan — even if they don’t want to be — because their citizens demand it.”

No one knows for sure what China’s leaders are thinking here, but Kelly suspects that the above case is more plausible than military incompetence, belligerence toward Japan or that Xi himself is trying to make a splash.

“The Chinese have always struck me as pretty cautious, even crafty, in managing their rise. It’s true that they’re a lot more aggressive since 2009, but I don’t see them suddenly becoming reckless,” Kelly writes. “I always found that factoid that the (People’s Republic of China) spends more on internal than external security to be indicative that CCP is, in fact, very insecure at the top. It’s gotta have an ideology with foreign enemies, otherwise the Chinese people might see the real enemy: the CCP’s corruption, rejection of democracy and unwillingness to admit the horrors of Maoism.”

I’m not sure that Chinese citizens are anywhere near labeling the Communist Party as “the real enemy” — even the 1989 student protests called only for the party to reform, not to collapse outright. But it is true that Chinese leaders have to worry very much about popular sentiment these days. Sparking little incidents with Japan is a tried-and-true way to gin up nationalism and get people focused on rallying against Japan — and, thus, behind the Communist Party government.

It’s entirely possible that there is some other explanation for China’s air defense zone. Maybe Beijing really did want to exert greater control over this vast swath of highly sensitive airspace, and thought it could get Japan and the U.S. to comply. Maybe Chinese leaders earnestly want to show Japan that they’re the new power of East Asia. But if one assumes that Chinese leaders are rational and smart enough to have anticipated the U.S. reaction, then it would perhaps make the most sense that this was all about boosting internal legitimacy.

  • iwishitweretrue

    China just wants to protects its assets – which include the Diaoyu islands. The US made a big mistake in being too aggressive militarily in its Asia Pivot – and Japan foolishly started to try and contain China – and these two ill judged moves eventually pushed China to respond with the ADIZ zone. “Best to leave sleeping dogs lie” is a wise old proverb which the US and Japanese could learn from!!

    • caninjap

      If China wants to protect its assets, they shouldn’t do it in a militaristic, forceful ways. Right now the way they’re “protecting” is not a just way of doing it. If anything, when was the Senkaku Islands part of China? Why was it not contested after the second world war when Japan was ordered to return territory previously invaded? Why did China not patrol the area after the war? Even with a minimal naval force patrols should still be possible to show a presence around the area. I mean Canada is vast yet the territorial waters can still be patrolled with few ships.

      From a general perspective, it seems more of a greedy move when China began protesting after a report was submitted noting that the area around Senkaku was full of resources in 1969.

      Additionally, Japan doesn’t have the power to contain China, especially given that China is many times larger than Japan. Why don’t you include how the Phillipines, Korea, Russia, and other countries surrounding China that they are also part of a ring that’s “containing” the Middle Kingdom. This particular includes India too since there have been skirmishes between China and India whereas Japan never had one after the war; The only conflict were only on a political scale rather than physical.

      I see it ironic how you say US and Japan should learn from the proverb when it’s in fact China being aggressive against the US and Japanese who are in defense. China is the one challenging what’s been set internationally, and without negotiations among one another. What China’s doing is something that’s making themselves look barbaric, using force to instate their rule that Senkaku is rightfully theirs.

  • Casper Steuperaert

    So China basically uses the same strategy as North Korea to keep their communist parties in power. In other words, we’ll see a lot of words flying around the coming decades, but no bombs

  • ltlee1

    Max Fisher knows America well and he articles on American issues are excellent reads. In comparison, he does not appear to know much about China. And the current article should be read to understand the US, not China.

    First of all, “Military, tricky way” is the opening phrase of Sunzi’s the Art of War. There is nothing wrong if “how Beijing thinks about its military and makes military decisions is largely a mystery to the outside world.”

    Second, did the US really fly the B52 without informing China in anyway? Sounds like he has lower opinion on Washington than me. AZID or no AZID, China has as much as the US in using the air space. And accident can happen in an unregulated environment. Example: South China Sea air collision incident ~5 months before 9/11 The rest of the story is well known. China lost a fighter and its pilot. Thirteen(?) US airmen were jailed in China for weeks. Finally the US apologized. US air crew were then released. The only way to preclude similar accident was to inform the Chinese side. More important, the decision to fly the B52s after China had announced the ADIZ had to be made by authority higher than flag officials, possibly went all the way to Obama himself. Let us say he was of the view that China, in contrast with Japan, has absolutely no rights in creating any ADIZ. Does it follow that he would then risk the flight crew of the B52 to prove he was right? Of course not. He would easily prove his point by contacting the Chinese side and warning them the B52s would transverse the zone and they would not comply with rule per US ADIZ regulation. In return, he might ask the civilian airlines to comply.

    Thrid, linking the everything to China’s corruption seems to be a common practice for many US observers. Rather than, explaining China. This approach explain the US. Especially, hoe US news has made US citizens dumb. Interest readers should consult the fine book written by Prof. C John Sommerville with the title of “How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society.”

    Of course, no one can deny the fact tht China has corruption. But the Chinese people are not dumb. They know that some officials are corrupt and many are not. Survey by western organization had shown that a large percentage of the Chinese people are satisfy with the direction of the country. An equally high percentage also trust the Chinese government. In contrast, the US is the country that needs an external threat to united the people over partisan politics. The Pentagon also needs an enemy like China to justify its large budget.

  • ltlee1

    Max Fisher knows America well and he articles on American issues are excellent reads. In comparison, he does not appear to know much about China. And the current article
    should be read to understand the US, not China.

    First of all, “Military, tricky way” is the opening phrase of Sunzi’s
    the Art of War. There is nothing wrong if “how Beijing thinks about its military and makes military decisions is largely a mystery to the outside world.”

    Second, did the US really fly the B52 without informing China in
    anyway? Sounds like he has lower opinion on Washington than me. AZID or no AZID, China has as much as the US in using the air space. And accident can happen in an unregulated environment. Example: South China Sea air collision incident ~5 months before 9/11 The rest of the story is well known. China lost a fighter and its pilot. Thirteen(?) US airmen were jailed in China for weeks. Finally the US apologized. US air crew were then released. The only way to preclude similar accident
    was to inform the Chinese side. More important, the decision to fly the B52s after China had announced the ADIZ had to be made by authority higher than flag officials, possibly went all the way to Obama himself. Let us say he was of the view that China, in contrast with Japan, has absolutely no rights in creating any ADIZ. Does it follow that he would
    then risk the flight crew of the B52 to prove he was right? Of course not. He would easily prove his point by contacting the Chinese side and warning them the B52s would transverse the zone and they would not comply with rule per US ADIZ regulation. In return, he might ask the civilian airlines to comply.

    Thrid, linking the everything to China’s corruption seems to be a
    common practice for many US observers. Rather than explaining China. This approach explain the US. Especially, how US news has made US citizens dumb. Interest readers should consult the fine work of Prof. C John Sommerville with the title of “How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society.”

    Of course, no one can deny the fact thatt China has corruption. But the Chinese people are not dumb. They know that some officials are corrupt and many are not. Survey by western organization had shown that a large percentage of the Chinese people are satisfy with the direction of the country. An equally high percentage also trust the Chinese government. In contrast, the US is the country that needs an external threat to united the people over partisan politics. The Pentagon also needs an enemy like China to justify its large budget.

  • Keith David

    “..japanese government makes no attempt to negotiate with china…”
    that sounds similar to PRC being unwilling to negotiate mulitlaterally with ASEAN nations over similar sovereignty disputes on territory in the South China Sea

  • Keith David

    As a outside observer, i’m sorry but they appear exactly similar. The “sides” all have their “historical” claims/maps/documents to “prove” sovereignty. When one party/nation takes unilaterial action, it is viewed as hostile by the other. The PRC’s recent actions on its claims in the South China sea is full of unprecedented buildup of force and actions inconsistent with stated claims to negotiate disputes. It’s precisely because of differing claims that it has become disputed territory.