By David Schlesinger
When China suddenly declared a military zone in the East China Sea in November 2014, many countries said they were concerned and many analysts worried this could be an act that could set off mistakes and misunderstandings that might lead to conflict or even war.
To those outside China, the key issue is that China’s Air Defense Identification Zone includes islands whose ownership is disputed with Japan.
To those inside China, the key issue is that China is simply doing for the first time what the United States has done ever since World War Two and scores of other countries have done in the decades since.
China is now the world’s second largest economy. Why shouldn’t it act like the big power it now is, they ask.
Driving that point home, just weeks after announcing the Air Defense Identification Zone on Earth, China successfully soft landed a spacecraft on the Moon, making it only the third nation ever to do so – after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
China is very sensitive to other countries denying it the right to do things it has seen the world’s traditional powers do for decades if not centuries.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman answered Tokyo’s criticism of the air zone by saying it was a defensive measure in line with international law. “Japan intentionally targets China on this issue, with a view to stealthily implanting a false idea, practicing double-standard and misleading world opinion,” he said, adding: “Japan’s attempt is doomed to failure.”
Weak no longer, China is flexing its muscles.
What makes China’s zone such a flashpoint is it includes the little barren and rocky island group whose name, even, is unsettled. The Japanese call the islands the Senkaku. China calls them the Diaoyu.
The island disputes have gone on for more than 100 years, but have been hot on and off since the 1970s. The disputed ownership stirs up strong nationalistic feelings in every place that’s involved – Japan, China and Taiwan (which itself is considered part of China by Beijing).
Nationalism is one thing; money is another. The islands are part of important sea routes and rich fishing grounds, and, perhaps most significantly, may have oil. To China, asserting its rights in the area is an important part of being respected as a strong nation.
Beijing considers the Diaoyu to have been part of China since ancient times. By patrolling off the Diaoyu, government vessels are protecting Chinese sovereignty, the Foreign Ministry said. “The Japanese side should be honest with history and facts, stop all provocative words and deeds and make real efforts to properly manage and solve the issue,” the Ministry spokesman said.
This isn’t just an issue for the government. It strikes at the heart of China’s historical self-image in a way that resonates with most of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Imperial China was the most important power in its known world and expected – and got – tribute and respect from neighboring countries. Then its world fell apart. Now the country’s economic power gives it a chance to be taken seriously on the international stage and make up for the humiliations of the 19th century when the West took advantage of a weakened China.
Weak no longer, China is flexing its muscles in the sea, in the air and in space.
David Schlesinger is founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a consultancy that advises on political risk analysis, strategy and on running complex, dispersed global organizations with an emphasis on China and the media sector. He was formerly Chairman of Thomson Reuter’s China, responsible for government relations and businesses in financial markets, legal and regulatory databases, scientific information and journalism. Previously he was Reuters’ global Editor‐in‐Chief.