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Chinese territorial assertiveness: more than Beijing can ultimately handle?

By Liang Nah - posted Friday, 6 December 2013

The aphorism "might makes right" appears to be alive in Asia. Regarding the territorial ambitions of the People's Republic of China (PRC), it appears to be Beijing's modus operandi where the PRC's forces have seized disputed islands from Vietnam like the Paracel Islands in 1974, and more recently, from the Philippines, including Mischief Reef in 1994 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. However, China's 23rd November declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea which overlaps the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and which covers the Senkaku Islands disputed by Japan and China will not be easily settled in Beijing's favour.

Inasmuch as ADIZs are enforced by states (without the sanction of international law) to compel the aircraft of other nations to identify themselves, and follow the instructions of ADIZ air traffic controllers or risk being shot down, China's new ADIZ is a declaration of airspace dominance against Japan, South Korea and Taiwan whilst strengthening Beijing's claim over the Senkakus. While Japan, South Korea and Taiwan could well afford to ignore the PRC's earlier seizure of island territories and even dismiss Beijing's claim to the South China Sea via the "Nine Dotted Line" as unrealistic, the PRC's new ADIZ reinforces the spectre of Chinese expansionism and will not go unchallenged.

Japan and South Korea – NOT Davids to China's Goliath


As already seen in the past week, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have already defied China by flying military aircraft through the new ADIZ, and even the US has flown two B-52 bombers through it on 26th November as a show of support for their ally Japan. But even if the US and Taiwan are excluded from consideration, Japan and South Korea, whose administered territories have only just been affected by this new ADIZ, are no pushovers themselves. Both the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) and the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) possess decent numbers of technologically advanced air superiority fighters (F-2s and F-15s for the JASDF and F-16s and F-15s for the ROKAF), equipped with the latest air-to-air missiles, and are crewed by well-trained pilots.

While not underestimating the quality or quantity of frontline PRC warplanes and pilots, Beijing's enforcement of the parts of its East China Sea ADIZ that overlap with the Japanese and Korean ADIZs will prove arduous, and even deadly if pilots on either side miscalculate or refuse to yield. Essentially, in any airspace dispute, China can overwhelm the Vietnamese People's Air Force (which has modern fighters but insufficient quantities of them) while the Philippines can offer no resistance at the moment with no jet fighters in its arsenal, but when facing off against Japan and South Korea, both of the latter possess the air power resources and financial wherewithal to prevent China from completely enforcing its new ADIZ, for the foreseeable future.

The Geostrategic Downside to Chinese Territorial Assertiveness

With China's claim to most of the South China Sea and the disputed islands within, via its "Nine Dotted Line" demarcation, Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam which claim the Spratly Islands should be deeply concerned that the PRC's new ADIZ is a sign of creeping Chinese expansionism. Indeed, in response to press queries whether Beijing might decide to set up a future ADIZ in the South China Sea, China's envoy to the Philippines, Ambassador Ma Keqing said that it is China's sovereign right to decide "where and when to set up the new air identification zone".

Such a headstrong attitude can also be seen in the expulsion of archaeologists attempting to explore ancient shipwrecks, from what are ostensibly international waters in the South China Sea by Chinese paramilitary naval forces who claim the area as the PRC's territory. Hence, by using force to project a semblance of sovereignty, Beijing is trying to accomplish over time, a fait accompli such that the international community will acquiesce to the PRC's new maritime, airspace and territorial boundaries.

However, Beijing might face a backlash from Japan and the littoral states from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) since Chinese claims of a peaceful rise now ring hollow. To begin with, Japan, which has kept its defence spending below or near 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) might well go beyond the modest increases implemented by the Abe government and, if truly perceiving a Chinese threat, double or even triple its defence spending to 2 – 3% of GDP. Thus, while Prime Minister Abe requested a defence budget of US$54.3 billion in 2013, Japan has the potential to spend up to US$100 – 150 billion whilst keeping military expenditure to within acceptable global norms. Thus, if Tokyo can overcome the emotional "hump" caused by Japan's pacifist constitution, Beijing might find itself dealing with a far more robustly funded and aggressive Japanese military determined to hold on to the Senkakus, and its associated waters and airspace.


Next, fearing that Chinese hegemony will cement itself in the South China Sea, littoral states with regional territorial claims like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia will not only build up their military capabilities as much as their economies will allow but also lean towards security alignments with the US, allowing transient basing agreements with the US Navy like Singapore does, or quietly permitting US warplanes to operate from the former's airbases. This will strengthen President Obama's "pivot to Asia", reinforce the US presence in the South China Sea and vex China.

Lastly, while ASEAN has avoided the establishment of any military alliance or concrete security arrangements amongst its members, any serious bullying by the PRC in the region may well catalyse some ASEAN states into implementing intra-ASEAN collective security arrangements to militarily balance the PRC's regionally deployed forces.


Inasmuch as Beijing desires China to become an Asian geostrategic superpower with the territorial reach to match, it should realise that the rest of Asia comprises Sovereign states that will not tolerate grand Chinese imperialism. If there are leadership elements in Beijing who still believe in the PRC's benign and peaceful rise, they would do well to remember that national military build-ups, and increasing alignments with the US as a balance to China by Southeast and East Asian states are merely a first step towards the calcification of regional foreign policy against China, which is NOT in Beijing's long term interest.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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