East China Sea tensions run high, but war is unlikely

The China Post news staff

Is Beijing’s latest move in the East China Sea merely a bluffing game? Or is it ready to shoot down any “unidentified” planes flying over its freshly established air defense identification zone (ADIZ)? Despite Beijing’s warning that all planes passing through its newly designated ADIZ must provide their flight plans and maintain radio contact, the U.S. has disclosed emphatically that two of its B-52 bombers — unarmed — passed through the area earlier this week without following the rules of the Chinese game. It was a demonstration of open support for Japan, whose sovereignty dispute with China over the Diaoyutai Islands in the area is clearly the underlying cause of the latest tensions. It also comes as both a warning and protest against China’s escalating regional tensions. The U.S. move may not be further taken to mean that Washington does recognize Tokyo as the rightful owner of what Japanese call the Senkaku Islands, but it is definitely a show of confidence that China would not dare take the “emergency” measures that it has vowed to take against planes violating the ADIZ. Beijing has yet to respond to the U.S. “provocation,” but we can speculate about what steps China may take next by looking at the recent history of cross-strait tensions. In 1996, when the pro-independence President Lee Teng-hui was running for re-election in Taiwan’s first-ever popular presidential vote, China announced it would conduct a missile drill in the East China Sea — a move obviously intended to intimidate Taiwanese voters into shunning Lee.

Cross-strait tensions ran high and many Taiwanese people — and many in the international community — feared that military conflicts were on the verge of breaking out. In response, the U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the area and the fleet reportedly passed through the Taiwan Strait as a deterrent to China taking military actions. China did not back down — not completely. It still fired missiles into waters near Taiwan, but according to Lee, they were “dumb” ones, meaning they did not carry warheads. China meant to deter Taiwanese voters from re-electing Lee, but inadvertently united them and gave him a landslide victory. But does that mean China failed to achieve anything with that missile threat? China did not seem to be ready to escalate to a full-blown war or engage itself in military conflict with Taiwan or with its possible “ally,” the United States. But the missile threat was a reiteration of its stance in cross-strait tensions and of its sovereignty claims over Taiwan. And it succeeded in pressuring Taiwan into taking a more cautious approach to cross-strait relations. Beijing’s latest air defense zone can be seen as a similar move to reiterate its stance over the Diaoyutais. It may be bluffing, like what it did to Taiwan 17 years ago, but it is a necessary bluff in the face of Japan’s growing assertion over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Neither is China ready for full-blown war or military conflict of any scale this time, but we can still expect further “provocations” by China in the face of defiance by its neighbors and the U.S. And Japan and the U.S. are unlikely to defer to China’s threat.

Two of Japan’s major commercial airline companies have already promised to not file flight plans with Chinese authorities, and Australia has also lodged a protest, though its airlines have continued to follow Beijing’s rules for the zone. China has dispatched its aircraft carrier to the area on a “training mission” — and the timing is very sensitive. The questions asked at the very beginning of this piece represent two extremes, but China is not merely bluffing for the sake of bluffing. It is a strategic statement asserting its claims, but war is unlikely.