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Reckless flying dragon

China angered its neighbours when it unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (Adiz) on November 23. The United States disappointed its regional allies when, after ordering a pair of unarmed B-52 strategic bombers to fly into China's Adiz three days after the surprise declaration, it called on American airlines last Friday to comply with China's instructions when flying through the zone.

Between Beijing's increasingly rash decisions and Washington's inconsistent policies, regional capitals find themselves at a loss.

To be clear: China, like many other counties, can impose an Adiz.

Such a zone is an accepted reality of modern aviation; it is meant to provide a country's military enough time to respond to possible airborne threats. In that context, it can even be a source of stability in an international or regional setting. But the aircraft that must comply with a given country's Adiz instructions are usually those that are en route to the country - not all aircraft which just happen to be passing through. The mapping of such zones is usually done with great care so as not to overlap with existing air defence identification zones. And neighbouring countries are usually consulted before a zone is imposed.

China failed in all three aspects. As security analyst Rory Medcalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy noted, "there are several things wrong with China's declared position". Included in his list are the lack of consultation and the blanket application of the Adiz rules to all aircraft. Top China watcher Andrew Erickson has also noted that the scope of the Chinese Adiz "overlaps significantly with Japan's Adiz" and "also reportedly overlaps" with a Korean zone.

Worst of all, Erickson also noted that "official Chinese statements imply that Beijing intends to use military force if necessary to ensure that all aircraft comply with Beijing's instructions within its declared Adiz". This is a matter of grave concern to China's neighbours, because "an Adiz is not synonymous with national airspace".

That, in fact, is the root of the new crisis that a reckless Beijing has created; the zone is meant to press China's absurdly expansionist sovereignty claims. The East China Sea Adiz is designed to advance China's claims over the disputed group of islands it calls Diaoyu and the Japanese call Senkaku.

Stephanie Kleine-Albrecht, formerly of the International Crisis Group and now with the US Institute of Peace, coined a phrase earlier this year to describe Beijing's provocative approach to territorial disputes, including that over Scarborough Shoal: "reactive assertiveness", which means to "respond heavy-handedly to perceived provocations by rival claimants in order to alter the status quo".

Writing last April about the Senkakus/Diaoyu dispute, she posited that "Beijing's goal is to wear down Japan - and the rest of the world - into accepting that Japan no longer solely administers the islands. Instead, in the course of the past six months, China has established the notion of 'overlapping control'."

This analysis takes on greater weight after the imposition of the Adiz.

Even more worrying is the possibility that, however badly the imposition of an Adiz has been received in many parts of Asia, it was a deliberate strategy on Beijing's part to project military power in the region. Scholar Tai Ming Cheung of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation wrote: "China's decision to establish an Adiz over the East China Sea comes barely one year after Xi Jinping became chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The move is a major example of Xi's emerging doctrine of "preparing for military struggle" that is the centrepiece for his plans to develop a battle-ready PLA [People's Liberation Army]. This means enhancing the military's war-fighting readiness and accelerating the pace of its weapons modernisation."

There is very little that a small country like the Philippines can do in the face of China's latest outrage, except to support the much more reasonable position of regional partners like Japan and South Korea, to add its voice to the international chorus of concern - and to call on the United States to stay true to its allies.


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