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The Sky’s Not the Limit

4 minute read
Hannah Beech

A brave new world, sometime in the not too distant future: Chinese aircraft carriers dock at their naval base in Venezuela, cruising through a Caribbean that the U.S. once treated as practically another American Great Lake. From an air base in Cuba, one of the few remaining communist bastions, Chinese fighter jets roar into the air. They head straight for a patch of sky the U.S. has designated as an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This is not sovereign airspace but a self-proclaimed designation that carries little import under international law. Naturally, the Chinese pilots don’t bother radioing in to the Americans as they pass through the zone. Even the threat of tailing American bombers doesn’t faze China’s hotdogging airmen.

In this scenario envisaged by some Chinese foreign policy advisers, American power is on the wane and an ascendant Middle Kingdom reclaims its place at the center of the world. Already, the Chinese economy has transformed the planet. Geopolitics is next. China is steadily asserting itself overseas and standing up more forcefully in territorial disputes with maritime neighbors. Says Shen Dingli, an international-relations professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University: “[Washington] needs to understand that China is narrowing the gap with the U.S.”

It was into this changing landscape that Joe Biden landed in early December as he toured Japan, China and South Korea. Originally, the U.S. Vice President’s Asia tour was to have focused on trade partnerships and a dose of American affection for a continent that has felt neglected of late. Instead, Biden found himself entangled in a security crisis that could lead to armed conflict between the world’s three biggest economies: the U.S., China and Japan.

On Nov. 23, China announced the creation of its own ADIZ in the East China Sea, complete with an opaque threat of possible action against military aircraft that passed through this international airspace without informing Chinese authorities of their flight plans. Controversially, this new zone overlaps with those of Japan and South Korea, at the points where these nations are embroiled in territorial disputes. “We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” said Biden in Tokyo, with Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his side.

The ADIZ is the latest move by China to build a security architecture that Beijing hopes will give it legitimacy as it pursues what President Xi Jinping told his American counterpart, Barack Obama, will be “a new type of great power relations.” Over the past year, Beijing has dispatched fleet after fleet of naval vessels to contested waters in the East China and South China seas. Chinese warplanes and the country’s first aircraft carrier have followed, as has fortified Chinese administrative oversight of disputed reefs and shoals. Last year, new Chinese passports were unveiled with maps featuring a “nine-dash line” that scoops out nearly the entire South China Sea for China. The Southeast Asian nations that also claim parts of the vast waterway worry that Beijing will next fashion an ADIZ over the South China Sea.

China’s new ADIZ is essentially a long-term game. Even if it risks immediate international opprobrium, Beijing wants to create the kind of precedents that will give it international authority in the decades to come. After all, other countries long ago sketched their own lines in the sky. Shouldn’t a rising China be allowed to do the same?

Xi’s aerial acrobatics may also help distract a patriotic audience back home from the tough economic restructuring ahead. There’s little doubt, too, that China’s historical enmity with Japan has inflamed the East China Sea island issue; Abe’s equivocations on Japan’s atrocity-marred imperial past haven’t smoothed the waters either. The U.S. is treaty-bound to defend Japan in case of an attack — and Washington has angered Beijing by saying this security alliance covers the contested islets, called Senkaku by Tokyo and Diaoyu by Beijing.

Back to the future. It’s not certain, of course, that the coming decades will bring Chinese bases to America’s backyard — mirroring the U.S.’s once again expanding military presence in East Asia. But it would be at the world’s peril not to consider such a prospect, especially as tensions proliferate in the waters and skies closer to China. Warns Shen, hardly an extreme voice in the Chinese establishment: “The battle lines are now drawn.”

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