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China's air zone announcement threatens major Asian crisis

US Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Japan, China and North Korea this week comes at a moment of major diplomatic tension in the region. Only last week, Beijing unilaterally declared a new "air defence identification zone", to much international concern.

The zone covers an area of land and sea that encompasses islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese, which both countries claim as their own. The dispute over the islands dates back at least three decades, but has become much more heated since last year when the Japanese government decided to nationalise them.

Since the declaration of the air defence zone last week, Beijing has insisted that all flights, civilian and military alike, must submit flight plans before entering. The EU and United States have urged caution to calm regional tensions, and this will be a theme which Biden will emphasise in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul.

In response to China's declaration, the Obama administration has recommended that US commercial aircraft report their flight plans to Beijing, although US military aircraft continue to operate without notification. Meanwhile, Japan (which also continues to operate flights in the zone) announced on Saturday that it has asked the UN organisation that oversees civil aviation to examine whether the zone could undermine aviation safety.

Tokyo's ambition here is to bring enhanced international scrutiny to this issue in a bid to undercut Beijing. While air zones of this nature are commonplace across the world, there is concern that China has both imposed this measure unilaterally and warned that it will take unspecified "emergency defensive measures" if aircraft do not comply with submitting flight plans (already, it has frayed some nerves by sending fighter jets to investigate US and Japanese aircraft in the zone).

Whatever Beijing's motives in declaring the zone, it will add to the growing international tide of suspicion and sometimes even outright hostility as China increasingly asserts its growing power. The central challenge the country faces here is that its soft power - its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment - has lagged far behind the hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

In Japan, for instance, public favour toward China fell from 34 per cent to 15 per cent between 2012 and 2011, according to Pew Global, largely in response to China's new international assertiveness. Meanwhile, in the United States public favour toward China fell to 40 per cent in 2012 from 51 per cent in 2011. Issues such as Beijing's alleged currency manipulation, the large size of the US trade deficit with China and the large US financial debt held by Beijing, not to mention alleged Chinese cyber-security attacks on US interests, have taken their toll on US public opinion.

With distrust of China growing, many countries in Asia-Pacific are actively strengthening their diplomatic alliances, particularly with Washington, in a bid to balance Beijing's growing economic and military strength. This is a political headache the new Chinese leadership could do without and it must now think hard about how to enhance the country's image in the world.

Most immediately, Beijing must restart a process of addressing concerns of foreign governments about its intentions. Here, it needs to intensify efforts to be seen as a responsible, peaceful power. And match this rhetoric with actions.

President Xi Jinping made a good start toward this goal in his landmark summit with President Barack Obama last summer. He pledged to form a "new model of co-operation" and that "China and the United States must find a new path ... one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past".

As the Pew Global data indicates, China's international image would also benefit from enhanced public diplomacy to win more foreign "hearts and minds". At a symbolic level, example measures might include utilising the country's growing capabilities in space travel for high-profile international cooperation projects. Surveys underline that many around the world admire China's strength in science and technology.

A related problem to be tackled is that international communications of Chinese state institutions often lack legitimacy and credibility with foreigners. One solution might be expanding the numbers of non-state groups - including from civil society networks, diaspora communities, student and academic groups and business networks - involved in the country's diplomatic outreach.

For many foreign publics, there also needs to be stronger Chinese commitment to domestic political change, transparency and concrete steps towards democratisation. Many in the international community are likely to remain wary of the country while it clamps down on its own citizens seeking domestic reform, including human rights activists.

Taken overall, the challenges ahead for China are deep-seated and will require sustained investment and significant reform. However, unless they are tackled, the country's reputation problems will increasingly disable, rather than enable, its ambitions as a rising superpower.

Andrew Hammond was formerly a geopolitical analyst at Oxford Analytica. He was also a special adviser in the UK government of Tony Blair.


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