China playing a risky game with air defence zone
China’s decision to create a zone that covers uninhabited islands under the control of Japan is provocative
What would happen if Chinese and Japanese military aircraft were to fire on one another? What would happen if Chinese military jets were to fire on a civilian aircraft or force it down? The mixed signals from US may even increase risks of conflict
Will we sustain an open global economy while also managing tensions between a rising autocracy and democracies in relative economic decline?
That was the question posed by the arrival of imperial Germany as Europe’s leading economic and military power in the late 19th century. It is the question posed today by the rise of communist China.
Now, as then, mistrust is high and rising. Now, as then, actions of the rising power raise risks of conflict. We know how this story ended in 1914. How will the new one end, a century later?
China’s decision to create an “East China Sea air defence identification zone” that covers uninhabited islands currently under the control of Japan (called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China) is evidently provocative: the two countries’ air defence zones now overlap.
Neither Japan nor South Korea recognises the new zone, which China seems prepared to defend.
The US does not recognise the zone either, and is bound by treaty to support Japan in a conflict.
Yet the state department has also indicated that it “expects” US commercial aircraft to comply with Chinese demands, in order to avoid the danger to innocent lives.
The signals, then, are mixed, as usual in such situations. But, as William Fallon, a former head of US Pacific Command, has noted, the Chinese zone raises the potential for an accidental conflict.
What would happen if Chinese and Japanese military aircraft were to fire on one another? What would happen if Chinese military jets were to fire on a civilian aircraft or force it down? The mixed signals from the US may even increase the risks of conflict.
As we also know from the onset of the first World War, seemingly minor events can quickly escalate to catastrophic proportions.
Europe never recovered from the disasters of that war, and the even worse one it spawned 25 years later.
Today, with China under the leadership of Xi Jinping, an assertive nationalist, Japan under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, a no less assertive nationalist, and the US committed by treaty to defending Japan against attack, the risk of a ruinous conflict again exists.
Such an event is far from inevitable. It is not even likely. But it is not impossible and it is more likely than it was a month ago.
Again, there are parallels with the rise of Germany. In the early 20th century, that nation launched a naval arms race with the UK. In 1911, Germany sent a gunboat to Morocco in response to French intervention in that country. The aim was, in part, to test relations between France and the UK.
In the event, it cemented that alliance, just as China’s action is likely to cement the alliances between Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and the US on the other.
And, as was the case for the UK then, the US of today is increasingly troubled by the challenge presented by China’s desire to assert its rising regional power.
Why would the Chinese president take such a provocative action? Since he appears to be in an increasingly powerful position inside his country, Mr Xi presumably took this decision consciously, perhaps with a view to further such actions.
Yet, to the disinterested observer, the gains from control over a few uninhabited rocks are vastly outweighed by the risks to his nation, which has just embarked on complex economic reforms, is deeply embedded in the world economy and is still a long way from its goal of becoming a high-income country.