4 Quick Hypotheses on Why China Suddenly Declared this New Air Defense Zone

Nov 29, 2013


If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.

Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should. The following are some quick ideas for where this suddenly came from. Each is more-or-less tied to a level of analysis, but the prose is laymen-style because it was originally written for media

1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.

2. Blowback (domestic politics, Myths of Empire): the CCP is doing this for domestic legitimacy purposes. CCP ideology since Tiananmen is nationalism, not communism. And Japan is the great foreign enemy in that narrative. The CCP may not want a conflict with Japan, but it’s been telling Chinese youth for 20+ years that Japan is greatly responsible for the ‘100 years of humiliation.’ So now the CCP is stuck; they have to be tough on Japan – even if they don’t want to be – because their citizens demand it. The CCP has created an anti-Japanese frankenstein at home that has to be placated. They have to ride the anti-Japanese tiger their education/propaganda has created, or risk a domestic backlash.

3. Incompetence (bureaucratic politics): the CCP and PLA didn’t really realize just how sharply locals and the US would react. Maybe they’re reading too many of these books claiming that China is about to ‘eclipse’ the US and ‘rule the world’ and all that. Hah! Maybe they’re starting to believe their own hype and got overconfident. Chinese bullying in the SCS has worked out reasonably well so far, so maybe they felt they were on a roll and could do the same in the ECS. But China’s NEA neighbors are much more capable than in SEA.

4. The Transition (leadership, psychology): Xi Jinping wants to make a splash as the new boss. Our knowledge of CCP factions is weak (coastal Shanghai princelings vs hinterland populists is the usual breakdown, with Xi being from the Shanghai clique), but we know Xi was not a shoe-in. There was an internal contest, so Xi might be consolidating power with a flashy foreign crisis. Khrushchev did this sorta thing, and the NK leadership too frequently expresses internal splits by provoking foreign crises.


The problem is that Chinese foreign policy decision-making is so opaque, that we have almost no idea which of these options is most accurate – or if it’s something else entirely. My guess is #2, because the Chinese have always struck me as pretty cautious, even crafty, in managing their rise. It’s true that they’re a lot more aggressive since 2009, but I don’t see them suddenly becoming reckless. The post-Mao oligarchy system that runs China is designed to avoid exactly that. And I always found that factoid that the PRC spends more on internal than external security to be indicative that CCP is, in fact, very insecure at the top. It’s gotta have an ideology with foreign enemies, otherwise the Chinese people might see the real enemy: the CCP’s corruption, rejection of democracy, and unwillingness to admit the horrors of Maoism.

I think this will alienate not just Japan, but South Korea too, and it makes me wonder, per Drezner, what is going on inside Beijing. My sense has always been that the PLA and CCP are much smarter than the Kremlin of Soviet days ever was. One of Sun Tzu’s most quoted lines is, "When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of his way." So if you’re China, just stay out of the way while SK and Japan tear at each other. But now, China has given cause for Japan, SK and the US to come together. Very foolish. And for what? Are the Chinese really go to force down or even shoot down (!) civilian airliners in the zone? A KAL-007 resolution – a genuine risk now that Japanese airlines are not pre-calling the PRC after all – would be madness. It would vindicate Japanese paranoia immediately and alienate everyone in Asia. And China really needs local friends to avoid isolation by a coalition of the US, Japan, and India.

I would imagine then that the US will play up this Chinese move to Japan and SK to suggest what US analysts have been saying for a long time – that Japan and Korea have a lot more in common than they admit and face much greater external threats than each other. Koreans take Ieodo pretty serious. They built a research facility on top of it and even made a monster movie about it. I don’t think China gets that, as throwing Ieodo and Senkaku in the zone together gave Japan and South Korea common cause overnight. And in fact, the Korean response on Ieodo was swift and entirely predictable. The Chinese need to hire some Korea experts, I think.

As best I can tell from the mil-tech lit on this, China is still not capable of winning an air and/or maritime conflict in East Asia. Indeed, even without the US, my sense is still that Japan would win a major skirmish around Senkaku. China is still mostly a land-power, while Japan has focused on air and sea power since WWII. Also, if China forces Japan’s hand, it will burn bridges throughout Asia and provoke an encircling coalition, possibly running from India all the way around up to Japan. I don’t think Beijing is that foolish or the PLA that reckless. Hence my guess, that this air-zone was declared, not to provoke a conflict with Japan, but to bolster the nationalist credentials of the CCP at home.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea
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Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly