China's New Maritime Muscle

Passage of the recent air-defense identification law is only one part of the country's push in the East China Sea.
The Liaoning, China's first air-craft carrier. (Reuters)

It remains to be seen whether China’s establishment of a controversial “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea will escalate into a full-blown international diplomatic crisis. What is clear, however, is that the zone is just one way China is boldly flexing its military muscles in the region.

Talk on the air defense zone has been tough. Before it became public that the U.S. flew two B-52 bombers through the disputed zone, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force general said that aircraft violating Chinese rules could be shot down. China’s defense ministry issued a terse statement today acknowledging the U.S. aircraft incursion, which happened Nov. 25, but offering no rebuke. (The ministry said only that “the Chinese side has the ability to effectively manage and control the relevant airspace.”) Today, two Japanese airlines also disregarded the Chinese flight restrictions.
 
Over the weekend, after the zone was announced, China’s army held combat exercises over the East China Sea, in which pilots practiced shooting down fighter jets. (Here’s a photo essay of the exercises from state-run channel CCTV).
 
This week, the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, set sail for training exercises in the disputed South China Sea, “in a critical step to strengthen its combat capability,” state-run news outlets reported. Meanwhile, a small but vocal group of hawkish senior military officers has been advocating that China be alert to “the danger of war,” implying readiness to respond to the U.S.’s “pivot to Asia” with military might instead of diplomatic cooperation.
 
What does it all mean? For years, China’s internal security experts claimed that relative calm in the region gave China a “period of strategic opportunity” free from conflicts near its borders to work on the country’s internal growth. This window of opportunity was originally expected to last until 2020, but China may now believe it is closing sooner, thanks to U.S.’s renewed interest in the region. Experts at the Center for International and Strategic Studies said in a report on the air zone:
 

Against this backdrop, [Chinese president] Xi [Jinping]’s frequent admonitions to the PLA to be prepared to “fight and win wars” take on added significance. Along with hints from the just-concluded Third Plenum that the leadership is considering sweeping military structural reforms aimed at improving the PLA’s combat effectiveness, it leaves an impression that the leadership is signaling that it judges the risk of conflict in the region to be on the rise.

China’s recent saber-rattling also sits awkwardly with the charm offensive it launched during a tour of its Southeast Asian neighbors last month. Establishing the air zone over disputed areas of the East China Sea may be little more than posturing, but coupled with increased military activity, the risks of the policy backfiring are grave.

Heather Timmons and Lily Kuo

Heather TImmons and Lily Kuo are Asia-focused reporters for Quartz.

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