Of particular concern to analysts was whether China actually meant to do what it did. On The Strategist blog, Harry White outlined his reasons for why China had chosen a deliberate strategy of encroachment, challenging Japanese sovereignty to the Senkaku Islands in order to make a statement on China’s growing confidence in its military capabilities. Others didn’t buy into this argument, reasoning that the PLA, although it may deliberately have planned to raise tensions in an already volatile region, was far less likely to engage in such provocative behaviour, and that the CCP and its own internal logic may have ignored the serious ramifications of the ADIZ declaration out of hubris. Given the lack of detail regarding China’s decision, any commentary on whether the CCP erred by declaring an ADIZ or performed a master stroke in strategic thinking is speculative at best. The implications of the move suggest that it was deliberately made, and that it received the tacit approval of all sections of the government (as revealed by the language used by Chinese delegates at the 3rd Australia-China Forum held at the ANU on Friday last week. No where was there any suggestion that China should have consulted with other nations before the ADIZ was declared, neither was there any admission that the ADIZ had heightened tensions at the expense of ‘strengthening Chinese security’).
As to how deliberate the decision was, this report from the New York Times made things abundantly clear: it came from the very top of the CCP, from Xi Jinping himself, a leader who has never had close ties to Japan and who had been searching for a way to force Japan to admit that it had a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. This was apparently part of a year-long strategy by China to place pressure on Japan to negotiate over the Senkaku Islands and (more importantly) have the US reconsider its position in the East China Sea. The problem with this is that while Japan and the US were suitably annoyed, so were many other nations in the region who saw China as over-reaching its ambitions and acting in a provocative manner. If Xi had been trying to mend relations with other Asian nations, this unilateral act had the opposite effect, which suggests that it was done more for a domestic audience than an international one. Pick a target. Make a unilateral announcement. Demonstrate resolve to protect Chinese sovereignty. Repeat.
Throughout this process Japan has, it must be said, been showing a great degree of restraint. Knowing that China had Japan firmly in mind when it announced the ADIZ, Japan has been vocal in its condemnation of China’s unilateral action and has refused to accept the attempt to change the status quo. At the same time it knows that it cannot allow the Chinese to provoke it into retaliation, and so has maintained its policy of observation and reporting territorial intrusions by Chinese vessels and aircraft. This is as much to demonstrate Japan’s control over the islands as it is to keep a record of Chinese activity in the area. China, through the declaration of an ADIZ, can be expected to do the same, although the Chinese ability to police the area appears to be less than initially thought. Certainly Japanese authorities claimed on November 30th that despite China claiming that it had scrambled fighters to intercept Japanese aircraft within the ADIZ, no such interception took place.
In terms of whom is being more provocative, I must admit that I don’t agree with Prof. Rikki Kersten of the ANU who characterised the Abe administration as accelerating Japan’s move towards ‘normalisation’ as a military power, and how Abe’s actions have allowed China to successfully present the East China Sea issue as one that evokes Japan’s militarist past. One will remember that the entire issue of the Senkaku Islands and sovereignty was sparked by Ishihara Shintarō’s attempt to have the islands declared property of the Tokyo municipal government, a move against which the then Noda government tried to placate China by having the federal Japanese government assume responsibility for their administration. China would not acquiesce to this, and has continued to ramp up pressure on Japan over the issue.
China has known for some time that Abe holds rightist points of view, although he is prepared to shelve them in the interests of regional cooperation. At the same time, China’s regional diplomacy, and its past behaviour of seizing territory around its borders, has promoted anxiety in Japan over China’s intentions towards it. Abe has attempted to rectify this by engaging in an active and widespread PR campaign in Southeast Asia and further abroad (most recently in India), and by all reports this has been well-received by those countries he has visited. Abe has sought to re-assure other nations that he is not in fact the rabid nationalist that he is portrayed as in the Chinese and South Korean media, and that he is in favour of cooperation with other regional states in economic integration and development assistance. Abe is not pushing any rhetoric of confrontation against China, yet he is also not going to accept China’s ADIZ strategy, for what leader would agree to a unilateral move by a neighbouring state that imposes hereto unnecessary regulations and directly affects Japanese sovereignty?
Abe is defending Japan’s interests, and that requires that he seek US confirmation of the strength of its alliance with Japan. Abe has not suggested that the US commit itself to troop increases in Japan or insisted that the US give a more solid display of unity with Japan on defence issues – all of that initiative has come from the US itself. Japan’s security hinges on its alliance with the US, and any weakening of that alliance would force Japan to pursue a much greater, much more expensive, and much more controversial path of armament against external threat. The Japanese public mood does not support such a move, hence the US itself must realise that maintaining a firm commitment to Japan is in its interests in the area, particularly when it comes to providing a counter-weight to China. No country wishes to be caught defenceless against a rising power, and so Japan is seeking reassurance from the US that its alliance with Japan trumps any move to acquiesce a more belligerent China.