Storm clouds are once again gathering over Asia. Old historical grievances combined with new concerns and technologies threaten decades of phenomenal, largely peaceful growth. The fact that the United States, the region's traditional balancer, is now seen as part of a historical anomaly that China hopes to redress by moving its defense perimeter to the second island chain in the Pacific makes the resolution of the growing crisis harder. Western policy makers, guided as they are by political election cycles, are no match for China's patient, long-range strategy of salami slicing to recover its past hegemonic position.
The growing crisis was dramatically brought to a head by China's surprise November 23 declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East Sea. The provocative unilateral move raised the bubbling tensions over the barren rocks-and-island chain contested by China's neighbors and served as a challenge to all military aircraft flying across the zone. It is not that China does not have the right to declare its air defense zone but as it overlaps similar Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese zones its surprise announcement and demand that all aircraft irrespective of their destination submit flight plans to China was seen as an unilateral attempt to establish sovereignty right. The prompt dispatch of US Air Force B-52 bombers on a 'previously scheduled' flight through the area and condemnation by the affected neighbors delivered an unmistakable message about the global stakes associated with China's claims of an ADIZ. Not only is the US bound by treaty obligations to come to the aid of allies like Japan in case of conflict, it is also keen to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation through international airspace.
The conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has its roots in historical grievances built over centuries of antipathy and warfare including massacres and enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan has apologized for its wartime atrocities and offered economic assistance as compensation. In return, China agreed to shelve its claim over the Japanese-administered islands for future resolution. But the situation has changed in recent years, giving China new confidence. The phenomenal rise of China's economic might against the backdrop of crises in the US and Europe since 2008 has given Beijing the confidence to shed Deng Xiaoping's advice to lie low and bide its time.
Already the world's number two economic power, China's growing air, naval and space weapons now give it the means to assert its claims and push for realization of its cartographic claims. It has taken advantage of the weakness of the neighbors to occupy some of the contested islands in the South China Sea and barred the Philippines from fishing in some areas, and Vietnam from drilling for oil in others. Its attempt to expand its claims on territorial waters by dispatching shipping fleets, coastguard vessels and sailing its new aircraft carrier has already given a sense of inevitability to Chinese control over waters considered rich in oil, gas and marine resources.
Amid rising concerns over energy shortages, the prospect of finding oil and gas in the water around the disputed islands has made asserting control over the islands more attractive. Japan's nationalization of the islands from private owners to prevent provocative actions by militant groups has triggered a strong Chinese response - leading to run-ins between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese navy ships. Soon the air over the area emerged as a site of potential conflict, with Chinese radars locking onto Japanese patrol aircraft and Japan threatening to shoot down Chinese drones entering the airspace over the island. By claiming that the ADIZ covers not only the Diaoyu/Senkakus but also the submerged reefs contested by China and South Korea and covering Taiwan's ADIZ, Beijing is sending a strong message to its East Asian neighbors.
South Korea, which has a long historical grudge against Japan. Relations have worsened with the emergence of nationalist Shinzo Abe in Japan and Park Geun-Hy in South Korea. For the same reason China-South Korea relations have warmed - that is until China's declaration of ADIZ overlapping South Korean air defense zone. Now South Korea, angry at the Chinese action, is planning to increase its naval assets in the area. Whether South Korea would actually listen to the US advise to patch up with Japan remains to be seen. Meanwhile, South Korean Joong Ang Daily claims that in July China's navy commander in chief asked his South Korean counterpart to stop South Korea-U.S. joint maritime exercises in the Yellow Sea - effectively moving US operation further east.
MODERN TECHNOLOGY FUELS THE FLAMES
Modern technology has come to fuel the flames of historical grievances and boost China's effort to expand its operational zone. The lingering anti-Japanese nationalist anger in China and South Korea has received a tremendous lift from the Internet. The ability to find news and spread it instantly, adorned with fiery commentary, has added a new dynamic factor in the Chinese national scene. Even an authoritarian regime cannot ignore a groundswell of public criticism lest the general public perceive it as weak-willed in the face of ancient foes. Chinese microblogs like weibo have emerged as a powerful tool in shaping public opinion that government wants to win over. China, whose one-party government can only ensure its continued rule by offering steady improvement in the lives of people and by satisfying their nationalist aspirations, faces the dilemma of one riding a tiger. The Twitterati's glee at China's announcement of ADIZ and then its explosion of anger at its leaders' unwillingness to confront US and Japanese aircraft highlights the dangers inherent in manipulating public opinion.
The crisis over ADIZ may have been diffused by the provisional US acceptance of the zone in return for China allowing unhampered flights through the area. But if China follows through its promise of setting up more ADIZ over other contested areas, perhaps over South China Sea, it will throw down a gauntlet to the US and its Asian allies. If the new ADIZ followed China's nine- dash line marking its claim on most of the South China Sea it would overlap the Philippines, Vietnamese and Malaysian territory while seriously challenging the US and regional powers like Australia or India.
Some China scholars see these moves as a well-planned long-range strategy of establishing its hegemony through salami tactics of what the Chinese call ling chi - or 'death through a thousand cuts.' Over the past two decades, Beijing has taken small incremental steps to assert its claims - steps that countries oppose but cannot afford to get too exercised about, and gradually get used to.
China may hope that its smaller neighbors will tire of defending rocks, shoals and reefs from constant attempts to establish control - especially as China continually expands its naval and para-military forces in the region. If this slow and long-term strategy is indeed what China is after, it would pose a difficult challenge to the US. Sure, it can send a few bombers as a symbolic gesture of defiance, but it is doubtful that it will have the patience or resources (especially with the Congressional sequestration sapping the defense budget) to respond to each and every small challenge mounted by China's ling chi manoeuver.