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PUBLISHED:23:03 GMT, 4 December 2013| UPDATED:23:03 GMT, 4 December 2013
On the 23rd of November China escalated its tensions with Japan significantly by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
While this zone may be a geographic span encompassing most of the East China Sea, its strategic shadow falls on the Himalayas.
The responses to this episode will shape the history of the 21st century.
Though more than three thousand kilometres away, this new Chinese posture may be well be India’s security frontline.
Dispute: This 2011 photo shows a P-3C patrol plane of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force flying over the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands
The ADIZ claims almost the entire area of the East China Sea – a quadrangle comprising China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan – as an extension of Chinese airspace.
The way an ADIZ works is that it extends a sort of sovereignty, a type of territoriality to airspace beyond ones geographic territory. An aircraft that intends to fly through, though technically in international airspace has to notify the claimant.
Most countries have used the declaration of ADIZs to consolidate sovereignty, as both the US and Japan have contiguous to their own territories for defence purposes.
China’s claim, though, doesn’t follow the contours of its coastline but rather juts out – a prominent salient into the sea. In this day and age land grabs are completely unacceptable, sea grabs are becoming unacceptable, and China has jumped the normative gun challenging air norms to possibly buttress its maritime and territorial claims.
There are some interesting dimensions to this episode. The first is the reality that China is the big man on campus in Asia, the U.S. pivot notwithstanding.
Admission: Joe Biden admitted America is ‘deeply concerned ‘ about Beijing’s exclusion zone in the East China Sea
Two; China’s continental outlook is now turning to the maritime domain and its early 20th century Wilhelmine notions of territoriality are being unleashed at sea.
Third; China’s actions do not come from any public discourse or consultation process, internally or externally. China has established therefore, that it is fundamentally a unilateralist, acting through stealth.
And above all, China only respects strength. Japan demonstrated enormous gumption and fortitude during the Senkaku crisis, but President Obama’s vacillations undermined this response. Questioning alliance responsibilities at that crucial moment may have indeed emboldened China in its current gambit.
In the words of Chinese Foreign Minister Qing Gang, “The U.S. should keep its word of not taking sides on the issue concerning the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands and stop making improper comments”.
America’s deliberate violation of the ADIZ by two B-52 bombers was a first step that saw a steady escalation, by Japanese and Korean jets. A day later China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed into the region and fighter jets have been deployed.
But yet again contradictory messages are coming out of DC. While using the air force to challenge the ADIZ, Washington has advised commercial airlines to respect the rules, all but throwing in the towel. The message from Beijing seems unequivocal “China will wait you out”.
China has an abundance of patience and resolve – and in its own view, it is on the right side of history. This portends trouble for India. If China declares an ADIZ in the east today, what prevents it from declaring the same over Arunachal, Sikkim or Ladakh? If that happens, Indian helicopters will require Chinese permission to land in Indian Territory. India cannot afford to allow this to pass.
The big question is, who will fly a challenging B-52 patrol for India over Arunachal, given that we do not even provide the United States with berthing rights? Given how supine India was at Dempsang, and the lack of public support for its position in the international community, India may find itself having to grapple with a far more ominous ADIZ with greater bite.
India must urgently explore a variety of options to restore deterrence vis-à-vis China. This first thing is to back Japan. The Emperor’s visit last week could have presented India with a moment of expressing solidarity and the impending visit of Prime Minister Abe in the coming month would be a useful time to do some plain speaking and strategic positioning.
But words alone are not enough. India has to work on a range of options including economic and hard options. These must include rationalisation and augmentation of its air force to ensure air superiority in each of its fragile border zones. It must also take a fresh look at reinvigorating its ties with Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Singapore and the littoral states.
Passive diplomacy is now not an option. It must engage with Taiwan, actively,across the board and especially on security issues.
As a last resort, the option of revoking recognition of Tibet’s accession to China, and the status of the Dalai Lama must not be discarded. Changing positions on geopolitical affairs should be a lesson we must learn from the wise mandarins in Beijing.
Ultimately this is a moment of truth for Japan: will the US take its alliance commitments to their logical conclusion or does an insecure and newly militarised Japan loom on the horizon?
This is also a moment of truth for India – where its increasing economic engagement with China must be located within a robust, security architecture – strength being the only currency China respects and it is the only currency of engagement with them.
Lastly it is a moment of truth for the United States; that alliances are absolute and need to be defended in deed and word.
While this analysis could be wrong, nothing is about to change till the Obama-Kerry duo play out the change they keep talking about, because whatever the U.S. has done so far, clearly, is not working. Emperor Akihito’s arrival in Delhi may have been an exercise in pomp and ceremony, but embedded deep within that visit was a menacing message from Beijing.