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Foreign Policy

Rumble In East China Sea?

Dec 04 , 2013

Just when the global economy appears to be gaining some traction — now this? 

Known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, these islands are shaping up to be an East China Sea tripwire. A single stumble could spark a nationalistic tailspin that could throw the world into chaos. 

Tom Watkins

China, flexing its muscle, has issued a map and a new set of rules governing an “Air Defense Identification Zone”, or ADIZ which includes a cluster of disputed islands that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by the PRC. 

The recent new rules set by China state that all aircraft must get clearance to from Chinese authorities or face a military reaction from PRC authorities guarding the zone. Japan’s two main commercial airlines, whose flights traverse this newly designated area dozens of times a day, rushed to comply with the new rules. The US quickly defied China’s new territorial claims and flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through the new zone. 

Yet just days after warning that flying in this air space would trigger “emergency military measures, the Chinese Communist Party raised no objection to overflights by two U.S. B-52 bombers and a Japanese commercial airliner. This was a wise decision by China’s leaders — but could ignite a nationalistic backlash if the Chinese netizens take to the Internet chastising China’s leaders from once again kowtowing to the West. 

The escalating standoff is fearfully reminiscent of the Cold War era.

What is frightening is how close and frequent these encounters are becoming and how nationalistic pride coupled with domestic politics could have our nations inadvertently tumble into an armed conflict. 

China is not only attempting to spread its wings by controlling airspace but also exerting its muscle at sea. 

Not since 1405 has China built a navy that can break out of its confined coastal waters to protect distant sea-lanes and counter regional rivals. 

In 2005, China celebrated the 600th anniversary of the amazing voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Admiral Zheng is celebrated as a great navel genius. In 1405, the Chinese imperial fleet set out on its first voyage to explore and trade with the world. It is reported the logistics of the enterprise remain unparalleled in maritime history – 27,000 men aboard 317 ships. 

Pride Matters 

China is firm in its resolve not to repeat the “century of humiliation” suffered at the hands of superior seafaring Japanese and Western powers. 

PJ Media reports, “The White House is tasking Vice President Joe Biden during his upcoming trip to Asia with the delicate duty of asserting U.S. power in the region while ensuring that all parties play nice despite “a number of difficult legacy issues remaining from the previous century.” 

At a time when Japan is struggling to emerge from a decade’s long economic slumber; the US economy is gaining traction. China, hot off its recently concluded Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee, has plans to re-balance its economy and keep it humming. The last thing the people of the world need is a single mistake to start, as Mao would say, “a raging forest fire.” 

Xinhua News Agency reports China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has thrown his personal weight behind a rebuilding of China’s maritime strength. In a recent speech to the Politburo, Xi said the oceans would play an increasingly important role this century in China’s economic development.  Xi proclaimed, “We love peace and will remain on a path of peaceful development but that doesn’t mean giving up our rights, especially involving the nation’s core interests.” 

The Communist Party will fight to protect its “core interest”, they will not tolerate interference in their internal affairs — and they have now declared this spit of an Island, Diaoyu as both. 

Not withstanding President Xi’s love of peace, The Economist magazine wrote, “Suddenly, the prospect loomed of a stand-off between the world’s superpower and Asia’s emerging great power.” 

The Atlantic Magazine reported, “It remains to be seen whether China’s establishment of a controversial “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea will escalate into a full-blown international diplomatic crisis. What is clear, however, is that the zone is just one way China is boldly flexing its military muscles in the region.” 

The BBC remarks that Vice President Biden will embark on a planned week-long diplomatic mission to Asia, including a stop in China the first week in December to discuss what a senior Obama administration official called “an emerging pattern of behaviour by China that is unsettling to China’s own neighbours and raising questions about how China operates in international space and how China deals with areas of disagreement”. 

“The visit to China creates an opportunity for the Vice-President to discuss directly with policymakers in Beijing this issue, to convey our concerns directly and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making this move at this time,” the official said, referring to China’s declaration. 

Whatever the solution, sabre rattling between countries is not in any nation’s short or long-term national interest. 

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for more than 3 decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China.  He is advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. Follow him on twitter @tdwatkins88 

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