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.
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.