China’s newest zone

With all their free-trade hubs and other hyped-up regional projects, Chinese policymakers are experts at drawing lines on maps and declaring the areas within them special ‘zones’. Now they have done it with a big chunk of the East China Sea, naming a block of ocean including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands the East Sea Air Defence Identification Zone. The US State Department bluntly rejects the claim that Beijing can make demands of military aircraft flying through international airspace and not intending to enter Chinese national airspace.

Out of nothing, Beijing has created a new cause for alarm among Japanese, Americans and others, and thus a new reason for itself to freak out in response to criticism. The obvious question is: why? Why now? Why at all?

The ‘why at all?’ is fairly easy. Chinese governments like erecting symbols of territorial control. Beijing treats Indian visa applicants from Arunachal (“Southern Tibet”) differently. It incorporates local government bodies, complete with vast assembly house, for far-flung rocky outcrops in the South China Sea. It looks silly, but they’ve studied their Goebbels.

The ‘why now?’ is much harder. Many believe that Beijing has recently made a serious international-relations blunder. It found itself looking like the Indisputable New Asian Top Dog With Enfeebled Yankee Ex-Rival Slinking Away last month when Barak Obama failed to attend the APEC bore-fest in Indonesia. Then it threw that away through its infantile and vindictive non-response to the Typhoon Haiyan disaster in the Philippines, while the Mighty and Generous US (and Japan) poured in assistance.

Given its timing and its transparently contrived nature, the Air Defence Zone can only be a response to this blunder. Yet, from any rational point of view, it can itself be only another blunder – further worrying and alienating, and unifying, neighbours.

One explanation (as with the churlish reaction to the typhoon) is that this is simply angry-baby-throwing-toys-onto-floor diplomacy. Have a tantrum, feel better. But this doesn’t square with the caution and relative sophistication the leadership shows with delicate domestic policy areas – say reform of rural land ownership or the household registration system. The same, small body of people don’t lurch from sensible to nuts to sensible-again like that. (Do they?)

Another explanation (again as with the Haiyan meanness) is that this is designed for domestic consumption. This is a bit more reassuring, but not a lot. Have decades of the Chinese-victimhood/resurgent-pride narrative been so successful that China’s leaders have painted themselves into a corner, and are now forced to scare and anger the neighbours in order to satisfy their own population? Again, this doesn’t square with Beijing’s rigorous determination to manage public opinion on everything else.

So a third explanation is that different parts of the power structure are pulling in different directions. It could be, for example, that the Air Defence Zone was proposed by hawks as a heady follow-through to the APEC Top Dog performance, and pushed through in defiance of moderates. With Xi Jinping supposedly cleaning the military of top-level corruption, pick your nightmare scenario.

Chances are that this will just blow over – yet another mystery for analysts trying to gauge the ‘China threat’ to scratch their heads over; another reason to wonder how to gauge just how seriously they’re supposed to take Beijing.

This is the same government that will decide Hong Kong’s new election system. We now learn that the forthcoming public consultation will not cover different voting mechanisms, but invite us all to ponder how the Basic Law will affect and determine the eventual choices. To the inevitability that the process will lead to guided democracy, we can now add the inevitably that the process will be very, very tedious. One glimmer of novelty comes from pro-Beijing veteran and lawmaker Tsang Yok-sing, who presents a better-than-average version of the old story about how we are living in a world where the division between pro-dem and pro-Beijing camps no longer makes sense. For years, he eschewed all use of his English name ‘Jasper’, and only the most dull-witted and pedantic writers and editors insisted on it; now, he seems to be rejoicing in it. These things happen for a reason.

As a contribution to the consultation, my definition of a functional political structure: sports bores whine about how a new multi-billion dollar swimming pool doesn’t have the right sort of diving board, so the government says: “You’re right: we’re knocking the whole thing down and building a hospital instead.”

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11 Responses to China’s newest zone

  1. Joe Blow says:

    It’s a pawn move, Hemlock. A pawn that, at a later stage, may be sacrificed for something better.

  2. Headache says:

    I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

  3. Property Developer says:

    There are thin lines between explanation, description and justification, and between a paranoiac’s wish to spite his enemies and desire to please himself.

    In other words, China’s new territorial aggression was predictable with hindsight. Explanations are surely both superfluous and likely to be proved wrong by events. You could in the limit try arguing that China has more or less successfully blockaded the seas around the Senkakus, so is now trying to close the net. But does that mean that had the blockade failed, they wouldn’t have tried this latest trick? I think not.

    We shall only begin to understand when, hopefully, Japanese and/or US aircaft enter the Forbidden Zone — although Taiwanese ones would be more interesting. But by then of course the wily Pekinois will have embarked on their next trick: reclaiming the environs, spraying poisonous substances, building an open-ended bridge or tunnelling? Anything short of hoisting the flag, which would be much too straightforward.

  4. Chris Maden says:

    ‘Tis the season to bash Japan,
    Tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-lah,
    Fuck the Flips with Typhoon Haiyan,
    Tra-la-la-la-la, da-da-da-dah.

    P.S., I clicked through to Jasper’s article and was pleasantly surprised – a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

  5. gweiloeye says:

    The PLA have no designs on other territories, They just want peace…..
    a piece of east china sea,
    a piece of South China Sea,
    a piece of Japan,
    a piece of Vietnam
    a piece of Philippines,
    a piece of Malaysia….

    (apologies to Mel Brooks)

  6. PCC says:

    This is part of PRC’s strategic expansion of its mining business.

    “That’s mine.”

    “That’s mine.”

    That’s mine, too.”

  7. maugrim says:

    I think its almost like a ‘small dick syndrome’. There is an inverse relationship between the capabilities that they have as opposed to those they like to project. I suspect the more China does this, the more the opposite may indeed be true.

  8. PCC says:

    From last week’s FT:

    In Beijing recently, I listened to a top general from the People’s Liberation Army insist that China would never make the mistakes of Japan in the 1930s by taking the path of militarism. Just weeks earlier in Tokyo, I had heard a Japanese official drawing a different conclusion from the same history: “The Chinese are making exactly the mistakes we made in the 1930s,” he asserted. “They are allowing the military to break free from civilian control. And they are challenging American power in the Pacific.”

  9. Sojourner says:

    “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do

    We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too

    We’ve fought the Japs before, and while we’re Chinese true

    The Japanese shall not have Senkaku.”

  10. Incredulous says:

    I guess they’ve already made a claim on that volcanic island that just appeared off Japan the other day.

  11. anon says:

    Copied comment, from ASIA TIMES:

    “is there anything china does that wont *create a flap* in the democrazies ?
    just look at that massive japanese adz !
    murikka has it own of course, in fact the murikkans
    arrogate themselves the *right* to set up an adz
    in international water wherever they feel like parking
    their warships !
    in 1988, an iranian airliner on its normal flight path was shot down by missile fired from an murikkan destroyer [1], coz the airliner *violated the us adz* !
    but china having its own adz is another proof of *aggressiveness* !
    chutzpah of this magnitude ought to be admired !

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