The US sends a couple of B-52s through China’s recently declared air defence zone. And, to paraphrase the old peace-and-love poster, ‘nobody came’. The zone probably overlaps corridors patrolled pretty much daily by P-3 Orions and other US and Japanese aircraft, so the public announcement of the bombers’ passage was simply an obvious gesture to prove a point. At the same time, Japanese airlines state that they will not now comply with China’s demands for aircraft entering the area to identify themselves. On top of these snubs, the whole affair is a gift to Japan’s hawkish premier Shinzo Abe, who is about to unveil a defence review.
This can’t be going to Beijing’s plan. But that assumes it was a civilian idea, which it quite possibly wasn’t. China wheels out Professor Shi Yinhong, occasional surrogate spokesman, to tell the South China Morning Post that the zone had been in the pipeline for some time and would stay ‘forever’. This sounds suspiciously like: “The PLA jumped this on the government suddenly without warning, and now we’re trying desperately not to lose tons of face.”
Whether it is going to the PLA’s plan is another issue. Professor Shi says “the provocative stance of the Abe government” is the ‘cause’ of the air defence zone. But it could just as easily be the other way round: the Chinese military wanting the zone to ‘cause’ a (yet) more belligerent and militarized Japan, thus a bigger budget and a bigger voice in national affairs for the PLA, or whatever else they have in mind.
Despite passing control of the islands to Tokyo along with the Ryukyus in the early 70s, the US officially takes no position on the sovereignty of Diaoyu/Senkaku; nor, if it comes to that, does Japan, which refuses to acknowledge the existence of a dispute. But Washington is bound by treaty to defend Japan. By acting, or at least talking, more aggressively, Beijing is in danger of pushing the US into more open and active de facto support for Japan’s right to the islands, thus drawing bigger and darker battle lines for a possible future (and bigger budget, bigger voice, etc).
Echoes of the not-so-distant past: in 1995, China’s military conducted missile tests over Taiwan, prompting the US to send a couple of carrier groups into the area, leading Beijing to back down in semi-humiliation and vow to get big fancy ships of its own; and in 2007, the Chinese military fired an anti-satellite missile, blowing up a target, leading to international condemnation for leaving potentially hazardous debris in orbit. The PLA, of course, does not serve the Chinese state; it belongs to the Communist party, and you sometimes wonder whether the party needs the army more than the army needs the party.
On a slightly encouraging – or at least lame, even pitiful, note – Professor Shi assures the world that this fearsome-sounding Air Defence Identification Zone will be of the soft, warm and cuddly variety. “We will be flexible,” no less, especially if you are an American or Taiwanese aircraft. After all these years, B-52s still have this sobering effect on people.
On other aviation matters…
Ugly Airport Terminal of the Year Award undoubtedly goes to Shenzhen’s, which the SCMP rather helplessly describes as ‘futuristic’. That might have been true in the late 50s of Eero Saarinen’s at Dulles International, outside Washington DC. This monstrosity at Baoan is not so much clumsily literal as plain (plane?) ridiculous. Is it just me or do the air bridges bring to mind evacuation slides?