China caused a flutter when it declared an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea, even though the act has longstanding international precedent. Japan, South Korea and the United States have preceded China in establishing similar zones.
A critical difference, however, is that China is an ascendant military power, paced by its economic strength. Its every manoeuvre will be scrutinised for intent and effect. This is demonstrated in the robust manner with which it has pursued ownership claims to contested maritime territory in Asian waters. Air zones and land disputes are undoubtedly linked.
Ever since the East China Sea move, speculation has intensified over whether Beijing would demarcate an equivalent zone over the South China Sea to complete a security cordon. Its claims in the “south seas” are nowhere near as emotion- laden as its contest with historical rival Japan in the eastern seas, but this could be deceiving.
All things considered, it would be unwise extending an air reporting jurisdiction as it will enmesh China in difficulties with nations whose goodwill it will need to develop its economy and project positive influence as a rising superpower. Doing so would debunk the notion of its “peaceful rise”.
Which would Beijing rather have – a symbolic gesture that bears a cost, or good relations to allow it space to grow? The US has made known its concern about a South China Sea air zone, most recently when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Asia.
As such criticism is routine, it is not so much American objections that should make Beijing reflect on the ramifications, but what its Asian friends would make of its motives.
It was instructive that Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s declaration that his country would not countenance the move received a respectful hearing from Beijing. He said he had the impression China would not act precipitately on the matter.
A Beijing foreign ministry spokesman alluded to “complicated factors” that needed to be considered, aside from security requirements, when deciding whether to proceed. A concurrent remark that China retained the sovereign right to do so could in the event be read as pro forma.
This is significant. Indonesia is not a party to territorial disputes, which might have made its unambiguous stand palatable to Beijing. Indonesia is to be commended for reiterating by implication Asean’s position that a code of conduct binding China and Asean to an orderly resolution to the disputes is the sensible approach to take.
China would not want to have its standing diminished making a move which may not advance its interests by much, but carries all the risks of a diplomatic backlash.