Military asserts itself in tougher regional stance

December 16, 2013 by Vaughan Winterbottom

China’s Ministry of National Defence issued a statement on 23 November establishing an ‘air defence identification zone’ (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. China says non-commercial aircraft flying in the zone must identify themselves and maintain communications at all times with China’s Foreign Ministry and Civil Aviation Administration. Should the measures fail to be taken, China says it reserves the right to take military action against aircraft.

The zone controversially includes the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China. Even more controversially, the zone partly overlaps with both Japan’s and Korea’s own ADIZs.

Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was quick to call the establishment of the zone a dangerous escalation. “It was a one-sided action and cannot be allowed,” he told reporters from Kyodo news agency on 24 November. He warned that China’s move was “expected to trigger unpredictable events.” The following day Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe similarly criticized the action and vowed to safeguard Japan’s territory.

US defense secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the announcement, and viewed it “as a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region.” He reaffirmed the country’s policy that “security obligations under the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty apply to the Senkaku Islands.”

China’s unilateral move is widely seen by analysts as ratcheting up East China Sea tensions, which have been consistently high since Tokyo’s move last September to purchase the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands from a private Japanese owner.

With the new Chinese leadership in office just over a year, does the creation of the ADIZ signal that president Xi Jinping will pursue a more aggressive foreign policy platform than that of his predecessors? The answer is yes, and no.

Foreign policy in the PRC is still guided by theories laid out by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader from 1978 to 1992. Formulated in the course of various speeches and talks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dengist foreign policy is subject to multiple interpretations. In English it is generally taken to be a ‘low profile’ policy. But that is only one aspect of the broad doctrines of Dengism.

‘Low profile’ was certainly a sapient foreign policy in the geopolitical environment of the early 1990s. With the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 came recognition in China of the rising paramountcy of economic power as distinct from military prowess. The Soviet Union’s failure, after all, had been to exhaust its economic capacity in the hope of challenging US hegemony through military means.

In the dissolution, China lost its strategic leverage in the US-Soviet rivalry. At the time it was also facing temporary diplomatic isolation following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The country made a rational assessment that it did not have the military capability to adopt a hard-balancing strategy against the West based on an arms build-up.

Such an arms build-up, it was further argued, would also delay China’s economic growth modernization programs, which had kicked off in 1978. As then-foreign minister Qian Qichen noted, “low profile” would result in “unrelenting economic growth” and was “the best guarantee that [China] would have a bigger role in world politics.”

As this “bigger role” has materialized and the nation’s economic, political and diplomatic clout has continued to grow, there have been increasing calls to move on from the ‘low profile’ policy. Chinese scholars have argued that low profile has become impractical: as state-owned enterprises have bought technology, companies and resources all across the globe, China inevitably needs to protect those interests in a proactive or passive way.

Half the oil consumed in China – and over 90% of the nation’s imports and exports – is transported across oceans, leading hawkish academics to make the case for a globally-deployed, assertive naval capability. The deepening influence of the PLA in foreign affairs, bolstered by annual double-digit increases in defence spending, has resulted in a bolder military voice in national discourse. This voice finds support among an increasingly nationalistic populace that wants China to “regain its rightful place” in the world order.

Top Chinese leaders have continued to pay lip service to the idea of the ‘low profile’ policy. Former premier Wen Jiabao restated the case for ‘low profile’ when he said: “Precisely by not raising our banner or taking the lead internationally we’ve been able to expand our room for manoeuvre in international affairs.” In 2010 state councillor Dai Bingguo painstakingly reiterated support for ‘low profile’ in an article published on the website of the ministry of foreign affairs. And in July this year at a special Politburo study session on the nation’s growing maritime power, official media reported President Xi Jinping’s express confirmation of moderate Dengist principles on issues in the South China Sea.

Leaders are also very aware of the effect a denouncement of the ‘low profile’ policy would have vis-à-vis China’s relations with the West. Even the suggestion of such a move would stoke long-held suspicions about the Chinese-language meaning of ‘low profile,’ taoguang yanghui. The expression literally means ‘to hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time.’

Fortunately for them, China’s leaders do not have to dump Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy in its entirety. While Deng championed ‘low profile’ when it was expedient, the Sichuanese native also harboured a nationalist side. According to his Selected Works, he asserted in 1982 that sovereignty, security and national interests were the basis of diplomatic work.

He added that “no foreign country can expert China to be its dependency or expect us to accept damage to our national interests. The Chinese people have their own pride and self-respect. To the Chinese people, it is the worst humiliation when the national interests of a socialist country, its dignity and honour are damaged.”

These ideas find expression in Dengist foreign policy in the phrase ‘getting some things done’ (yousuo zuowei). ‘Getting some things done’ is part of the official 24-character ‘Deng’s Dictum,’ right alongside ‘low profile.’ In recent years, this often-overlooked, ambiguous aspect of the dictum has been used as official justification for China’s increasing willingness to appease nationalistic and military voices in the country and defend “territorial sovereignty” in the South and East China Seas.

This nationalistic side of Deng’s foreign policy platform has always been there; we are now just beginning to see its fuller application under Xi Jinping. China will continue to pursue a low-profile foreign policy with the West. Gone are the days of hard-balancing strategy and a desire to overturn the post-war liberal system. But at the same time, we can expect the country to be increasingly assertive in its own backyard.

What is worrying now is how China defines its own backyard. Before the announcement of the new ADIZ, it looked like this backyard would be restricted to so-called ‘core interests’ – though even those are the subject of debate and interpretation. As of November, however, this backyard is set to grow to encompass more of the ‘first island chain’ – a natural defensive line of major archipelagos running North-South from the Ryuku Islands to Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo.

China’s military strategists have long eyed the island chain as a crucial first step in a plan to project Chinese military power. The ADIZ sends a signal that the Chinese government is increasing efforts to control the chain. To achieve control, however it will have to step on Japanese toes. And covering Japanese toes is an American boot.

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