Rising tension in the East China Sea
Map of the East China Sea. (CIA World Factbook, courtesy of Wikicommons.)

Rising tension in the East China Sea

At a recent Burkle Center event, regional experts agreed that China's new air defense zone in the East China Sea signaled deepening mistrust in the region, but disagreed as to whether it represented a strategic move or a foreign policy miscalculation.

The Chinese assumption that the long-term commitment of the United States to Asia will waiver may be a potential miscalculation.

By Catherine Schuknecht

International Institute, January 21, 2014 — The security implications of China's newly announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) were debated at the panel discussion, “Territory and Conflict in the East China Sea,” organized by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations on January 9.

Moderated by former NPR correspondent Mike Shuster, who is currently a senior fellow at the Burkle Center, the event was cosponsored by the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Center for Korean Studies and Center for Chinese Studies.

China announced an ADIZ, a maritime airspace zone off its borders in the East China Sea, in late November of last year. The zone overlaps the Japanese ADIZ over a set of islands subject to a territorial dispute between China and Japan (known as the Diaoyu and Senkaku islands, respectively). It also overlaps South Korea's exclusive economic zone and its own ADIZ in the East China Sea.

In addition, the Chinese implemented new air traffic restrictions that require all planes passing through its ADIZ to submit their flight plans to China, whether or not they plan to enter its national airspace. Area studies experts at the Burkle Center panel discussed the impact of these events on China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, as well as the relationships among them.

Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and associate professor in residence at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego, offered insight into China’s perspective on the ADIZ. Gene Park, assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, spoke on Japan’s reaction to the zone.

From left to right: Mike Shuster, Tai Ming Cheung, Gene Park and John Duncan. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

John Duncan, director of the Center for Korean Studies and professor of pre-modern Korean history at UCLA, discussed South Korea’s concerns. And Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center and professor at UCLA Law School, spoke on the U.S. perspective.

A sign of deepening mistrust

The panelists agreed that the new zone was both an effort by China to assert its military power in the region and a signal of deepening mistrust between China and its neighbors.

This mistrust, argued Cheung, is the result of China’s shift away from a defensive military mindset toward what he called “an increasingly tough-minded security strategy that is focused on developing and flexing a . . . much more muscular posture in the region."

The ADIZ represents China’s attempt to project a defense zone beyond its immediate perimeter, continued Cheung, adding that President Xi Jinping's emphasis on having “a strong and battle-ready military” reflects general trends in Chinese bureaucratic politics.

Park agreed with Cheung's assessment, adding that China’s announcement of the zone was made within the context of a massive increase in military spending, including investments in a navy. In addition, China’s ambitious maritime claims have led to an increasing number of territorial incursions and violations of Korea’s exclusive economic zone. Given these circumstances, he said, China's neighbors find the ADIZ threatening.

China's ambitions in the East China Sea, argued Raustiala, can be compared to the U.S. posture in the Caribbean, which it treats as a “personal sea that other countries may inhabit, but great powers cannot really enter in a serious way.”

Despite efforts to improve relations in the region, including face-to-face talks between nations, China's lack of transparency and competition with the other nations in the region are starting to overwhelm areas of cooperation and convergence, observed Cheung. Nevertheless, Duncan noted that tensions between South Korea and China over both the Chinese air traffic zone and the Korean economic zone have not escalated because of their shared concerns on regional security and the need to denuclearize North Korea.

Strategic move or dangerous miscalculation?

The speakers disagreed on how to interpret China’s new airspace zone.

For Cheung, the zone is typical of the divergent norms of behavior and rules of the game that China pursues with respect to both the international system and its regional neighbors.

Kal Raustiala (left) and Mike Shuster. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

Raustiala asserted that China may have been intending to establish a precedent in order to “create facts on the ground,” comparing China's announcement of the expanded zone to Truman's assertion of exclusive economic zones around the United States in 1945, which were eventually accepted by the international community. Reflecting that China's security strategy is a product of millennia of strategic wisdom, he added that the new zone may have been intended to create ambiguity that would benefit Chinese interests.

Cheung disagreed with the strategic wisdom argument, pointing to the relative inexperience of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese military in the arena of international diplomacy. China, he said, perceives the United States as war weary after the past decade of conflict in the Middle East and assumes that its commitment to its allies in the region is lacking.

Yet Raustiala noted the United States flew two B52s through the region in response to the ADIZ announcement precisely because it has a mutual defense treaty with Japan and considers South Korea an important non-NATO ally. However, he continued, China interpreted this action as fairly insignificant, taking it as a signal that the United States may begin to lessen its involvement in Asia if China continues to push, an expectation he did not rule out in the long run.

The assumption that the long-term commitment of the United States to the region might waiver is, in the opinion of Park, a potential miscalculation by China. And miscalculations create potential for inadvertent conflict, observed Cheung, expressing concern that the current situation could escalate quickly.

Park pointed out that overlapping ADIZs create the potential for accidents. “In the event that an airplane failed to identify itself and entered this disputed ADIZ territory, a country could choose to scramble a fighter jet and that could create the possibility of some kind of collision or accident, which might precipitate a larger crisis."

Legacy of World War II

Regional tensions surrounding China’s new ADIZ are exacerbated by the unresolved legacy of World War II, which includes a lack of multilateralism in Asia and the failure of Japan to acknowledge its role in the war to the satisfaction of its neighbors. The Japanese and the Chinese, observed Shuster, have been unable to move past World War II and work towards peace in the way that France, Germany and Great Britain have done.

Cheung identified the post-war European integration project, which promoted economic, strategic and military integration, as the defining factor that allowed Europe to develop “routines of cooperation.” By comparison, he said, there is some economic integration in Asia, but no military or strategic multilateralism.

Park agreed, adding that many Asian countries, including China and Korea, were engaged in civil wars at the end of World War II, which created different threat perceptions among them. As a result, a shared sense of threat failed to unify them in the way that the Soviet threat brought Europe together.

President Abe's recent controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of “Class A” Japanese war criminals are enshrined, is consistent with Japan’s failure to acknowledge its role in World War II, added Park. In his opinion, this is a miscalculation by the Japanese leadership and the source of many problems that Japan has with its neighbors.

Duncan observed that an imperialist conservative legacy is deeply rooted in the Japanese leadership, making President Abe and other leaders unlikely to “condemn their fathers and their grandfathers" by rejecting the revisionist view of Japanese history. 

As the discussion made clear, a host of reasons contribute to tension among the nations of East Asia today, a tension that the newly announced Chinese airspace zone has only heightened.


Water in the middle east and africa: A nexus of cooperation and conflict