Friday, November 29, 2013

• With air-defence overreach, China has proven itself a paper tiger

With air-defence overreach, China has proven itself a paper tiger
by Matthew Fisher - Friday, November 29, 2013

A Chinese produced J-10 fighter jet is displayed outside the offices of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China in Beijing on November 28, 2013. The US on November 28 pressed its concerns over China's newly declared air defence zone, a day after US B-52s flew over the disputed area in the East China Sea.
TOKYO — To use an old Asian expression, is China just a toothless paper tiger?

Beijing threatened “emergency defensive measures” early this week against any aircraft, civilian or military, whose pilots had not received advance clearance from its aviation authorities to overfly islands and reefs that Beijing suddenly has claimed as part of an “air defence identification zone,” although the islands have have been under Japanese, South Korean and American (fairly briefly) administrative control since the 19th century.

The U.S. air force mocked China’s bellicosity by almost immediately flying a pair of lumbering, unarmed B-52 heavy bombers into the “protected air space.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the country’s two major carriers, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines (JAL), acceded to a request by their government to continue flying in the area without informing the Chinese in advance.

I flew directly over the Senkaku Islands on a JAL flight on Thursday without a hint of trouble. Also on Thursday, Japan and South Korea sent military aircraft on uncontested patrols through China’s air defence zone without seeking permission. For all its fierce rhetoric, until now China had reacted to the American bomber run and what it regards as unsanctioned overflights by Japanese and South Korean military and civilian aircraft by doing absolutely nothing.
However, on Thursday, China, which had earlier claimed it was aware that the U.S. bombers had been there, belatedly sent warplanes into the maritime air defence zone.

Tensions have been growing since China’s dictatorship began asserting sweeping territorial claims over most of the South China Sea a few years ago.
These assertions have also caused growing tensions with Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and, especially, the Philippines. China also has a toxic land dispute with India. In fact, the whole neighbourhood has been in high dudgeon over China’s expansive interpretation of what it owns, with the exceptions of Cambodia and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. Japan’s Shinzo Abe wrote late last year that China considered the South China Sea to be “Lake Beijing.” More provocatively, the right-wing politician wrote that nations such as India, Australia and the U.S. should form a “security diamond” to hem in China and keep the Indian and Pacific oceans open for unfettered maritime commerce.

China’s official media reported this week that in declaring an air defence zone, Beijing was behaving no differently than Canada. What it did not report was that although Canada and the U.S. jointly co-ordinate the North American “air defense identification zone,” which requires foreign aircraft to file a flight plan, it was not established above disputed territory. This rough patch for China is jarring because everything had been going its way recently. Chinese President Xi Jinping was the beneficiary when U.S. President Barack Obama — who has made a lot of noise about a strategic pivot to Asia — postponed a four-nation tour of Asia in early October in order to try to untangle the budgetary fiasco with Congress.

Overplaying its hand by declaring a protected zone nearly the size of the British Isles has particularly soured China’s warming ties with South Korea, which has its own bitter historic differences with Japan. Nor was this China’s first international miscalculation this month. It also erred in its niggardly response to the typhoon disaster in the Philippines. While much of the world, and especially the U.S., rushed to help Manila, China initially chose to do little to assist its neighbour. China did eventually send a hospital ship to Tacloban. But the vessel did not arrive until 16 days after typhoon Haiyan did.

With the Philippines still reeling from that monster killer storm, China made yet another aggressive move this week. Its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (actually an old, refurbished Ukrainian flat top) left its home port in northeastern China for the first time to begin deep water training manoeuvres with four guided missile ships near islets that the beleaguered Filipinos have long regarded as theirs. The battle group may sail these politically sensitive waters for several months, according to official Chinese media. Most Asian nations, and Canada, have held their noses in recent years over China’s human rights record in order to trade with it.

It’s a policy the Harper government — without specifically naming China — officially enshrined as “economic diplomacy” in a report released Wednesday by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. The latest countries to happily shake China’s hand have been Serbia, Romania and Hungary. Their leaders sealed a deal with a triumphant Premier Li Keqiang in Bucharest on Monday to build a high-speed rail link between the eastern European countries.
A complicating factor that is feeding the verbal skirmishes over the Western Pacific today is that the vast waters that China claims are, unsurprisingly, believed to be above large pools of oil and natural gas.

To prove that it’s more than a paper tiger, China is spending huge amounts of money on its armed forces. To protect their positions, India, South Korea and Japan have joined the Asian arms race, too. The battle for hegemony in Asia is only beginning.