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Monday, February 20, 2017
- Since his rise to power in late 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping has managed to consolidate his control swiftly over the three pillars of the Chinese political system, the state bureaucracy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the military. In response, many neighbouring countries cautiously welcomed a more self-confident and stable leadership in Beijing, hoping the new Chinese president will display greater flexibility on outstanding regional issues.
After years of intensifying territorial disputes between China and a number of competing claimant states in the South and East China Seas, fears of an accidental clash in the high seas have grown hand in hand with deepening risks of an outright military confrontation in one of the world’s most crucial waterways.
Against this backdrop, the early 2013 appointment of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, a veteran diplomat with considerable experience in Asia, was interpreted as a positive move in the direction of dampening brewing territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. While many analysts saw the diplomatic reshuffle as a reflection of the new leadership’s commitment to prevent further deterioration in its regional ties, President Xi Jinping has proceeded with buttressing the country’s territorial manoeuvres in the Western Pacific.
In mid-2013, Xi consolidated various maritime security agencies under the National Oceanic Administration (NOA), which ensured a more efficient and vigorous enforcement of the country’s territorial claims. This, experts contend, allowed China to step up its patrols across the South China Sea and secure its hold on occupied features.
He went even further in streamlining the country’s foreign policy bureaucracy, establishing the State Security Committee (SSC) in November. This is an overarching decision-making body that allows the president to manage national security and foreign policy issues more directly. Previously, the Chinese leaders had to coordinate foreign policy decisions through a complex web of bodies, namely the Leading Small Groups on Foreign Affairs and National Security and the Central Military Commission.
In late-November, China unilaterally imposed an Air Identification Defence Zone (ADIZ) which covers maritime features claimed by both South Korea (Leodo/Suyan Reef) and Japan (Senkaky/Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea. To demonstrate its commitment to enforce the new measure, China announced that it will “adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.”
Worried by China’s move, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea immediately challenged the newly announced ADIZ (late November), sending military aircraft to the area and ignoring Chinese authorities. This was followed by a high-profile visit by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to the region, where he held direct talks with leaders in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul, hoping to calm down tensions.
“China’s recent and sudden announcement of the establishment of a new air defence identification zone has, to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region,” Mr. Biden lamented during his visit to Beijing, where he held tense talks with Chinese President Xi Jingping.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Defence Ministry’s announcement that it will “establish other air defence identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations” worried Southeast Asian nations, who fear the imposition of a similar measure over the contested waters of the South China Sea.
“There’s this threat that China will control the air space [in the East China Sea] … It transforms an entire air zone into China’s domestic air space,” said Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario, openly criticising China’s ADIZ announcement. “That is an infringement and compromises the safety of civil aviation…[and] the national security of affected states.”
But China has refused to rescind its ADIZ, sending its own jet fighters to the area to enforce its regulations. China maintains that its ADIZ is consistent with established international practices, since a number of countries, including the U.S., Japan, India, Pakistan, Norway, and the UK maintain their own air identification zones. In response, Washington has advised civilian aircraft to observe the Chinese ADIZ, while clarifying that the existing ADIZs elsewhere — contrary to that of China — strictly apply to civilian aircraft only.
Meanwhile, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have worked on a joint statement to express their common concern over any potential “threat” to international civilian aviation, calling for ‘freedom of overflight’ in the region. Reports suggest that the draft statement reaffirms the common positions of both sides to “freedom of navigation” in international waters and “maritime security”.
For many observers, the widely shared criticism against China’s latest measures stands in clear contrast to how Beijing was able to garner tremendous regional clout in early-October, when Xi – in the U.S. President Barack Obama’s absence – offered multi-billion dollar trade and infrastructure deals to facilitate economic integration in the region. The hope was that China would avoid further territorial tensions as it seeks to project itself as the new pre-eminent force in East Asia.
“Is the former [Hu Jintao] administration different from the current one? We have hoped that the current administration will be much more constructive, and we are [still] hoping that the situation improves,” Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario told IPS, expressing the Philippines’ desire for a retrenchment in China’s perceived growing territorial assertiveness.
Others have been less optimistic, pointing to the leadership’s willingness to accommodate the rising tide of popular nationalism, which has been driving the country’s more assertive territorial posturing. The Chinese leadership is already grappling with a difficult economic transition, as it tries to establish a more sustainable economic model driven by domestic consumption, liberalised capital markets, and high-end manufacturing.
The process of economic transition is expected to meet stiff resistance from the beneficiaries of the previous labour-intensive, export-oriented growth model, while attempts at establishing a more competitive market economy could unleash instability in the future.
So far, it seems that the Chinese leadership’s more assertive territorial issue, which resonates with the majority of the citizens, is part of a calculated effort to enhance its political legitimacy ahead of the difficult task of implementing a perilous economic transition.