Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
Beijing: China's new air defence zone appears to have been approved by President Xi Jinping, the culmination of more than a year of pressure by Beijing to weaken Japan’s grip on disputed islands in the East China Sea, and by extension to expand China’s long-term access to the Western Pacific.
As Mr Xi amassed power in the past year, he voiced increasing displeasure with Japan. In a curt, impromptu encounter in St Petersburg, Russia, in September with hawkish Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Mr Xi said Japan must face "history squarely", according to an account in China’s state-run news media.
Mr Xi has rebuffed Mr Abe’s requests for a formal summit meeting, another sign of Mr Xi’s firm stance.
Rising tension: a Chinese warship in the East China Sea. Photo: AP
Mr Xi’s position as leader of the Communist Party and chairman of the military commission that runs China’s armed forces made him the primary decision maker on issues such as the air defence zone, Chinese experts said. Over the past year, they say, he has been particularly attentive to the East China Sea dispute.
Unlike some other Chinese leaders, Mr Xi had little involvement with Japan as he climbed the ranks of the Communist Party.
On a visit to Japan in 2009 as vice president, he was granted an audience with the Emperor, met numerous politicians and was treated to a gala dinner. In 2001, when he was governor of Fujian Province, he toured the prefecture of Nagasaki and visited Okinawa. He has spoken little of these trips, although as vice president he did welcome the governors of Nagasaki and Shizuoka when they came to Beijing, Japanese officials say.
Most likely he sees the country as a policy lever, said Rana Mitter, a historian at Oxford University and the author of Forgotten Ally, an account of China’s struggle with militarist Japan from 1937 to 1945.
"He does not appear to have any direct experience with Japan or connection with it through his family background," Mr Mitter said. "This is different from some other politicians, for instance Bo Xilai, who courted Japanese business quite strongly through his period as mayor of Dalian and later as commerce minister." Mr Bo is the disgraced Communist Party leader of the city of Chongqing now serving a life sentence in prison.
The idea for the air defence identification zone had been circulating within the Chinese military for some time before it reached Mr Xi’s level, said Jia Qingguo, professor of international relations at Beijing University.
The military was acutely aware that other countries, including Japan and the United States, had air defence zones but China did not, he said.
As the tensions mounted this year in the East China Sea, with Chinese and Japanese planes flying in close quarters over the disputed islands - known as Diaoyu in China, and Senkaku in Japan - Japan often complained that China’s planes were flying in the Japanese air defence zone.
The leadership reasoned that if Japan had an air defence zone for the past 40 years, China should have one as a way of achieving parity and as a tool to eventually wrest the islands from Japan’s control, Mr Jia said.
But Tokyo’s position on the islands is simply that there is no dispute, that the islands belong to Japan and there is nothing more to discuss.
It is this Japanese position that Mr Xi and his top military and foreign policy advisers wanted to change.
China’s top foreign policy makers believed that China’s air defence zone overlapping with Japan’s and covering the islands would be another way to force Japan to recognise there is a dispute, and come to the negotiating table, Mr Jia and other experts said.
Even before Mr Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012, he was in charge of a small group that had principal responsibility for the roiling problems in the East China Sea — both in the air and on the sea.
It was a period when the dispute over the islands had spilled onto the streets of China, with government-sanctioned anti-Japanese protests, and Mr Xi’s quick ascent to the policy-making group on the islands signaled his plans to take overall control of the issue.
After becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012, and then assuming the presidency of the country in March, Mr Xi toured important military installations, including ports where China is building its blue water navy — another signal of his long-term interest in gaining unfettered access in the Western Pacific.
Mr Xi told a Politburo meeting this summer that China must become a "maritime strong power", according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
In late October, Mr Xi called a conference of senior party leaders, including the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee and the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, to discuss how China should maintain good relations with its neighbours in Asia.
"The fundamental guiding policy for our country’s diplomacy with its periphery is to treat neighbours with friendship and as partners," Mr Xi said.
But it was clear that Japan was not included in the friendly group of neighbours - those consisted chiefly of countries in Southeast Asia - and a few days later, the Chinese Ministry of Defence intensified its warnings to Japan over the disputed islands.
A Defence Ministry spokesman, Geng Yansheng, said that China would consider it "an act of war" if Japan carried out its threat and shot down a Chinese drone flying over the islands. "We would have to take decisive measures to counter-attack," Mr Geng said, the most warlike words from China in the dispute so far.
A recent account in a Hong Kong-based magazine Asia Weekly, which often carries reliable reports on Beijing’s foreign policy deliberations, described the imposition of the air defence zone as a "great sea-air strategic breakthrough for China". The magazine said Mr Xi finalised the decision four months ago.
The breakthrough the article referred to was the piercing of what China sees as a boundary that stretches from the southernmost Japanese islands toward the east coast of Taiwan and joining the South China Sea.
"China is no longer focusing just on Diaoyu Island, not only on the gas field of the East China Sea median line, but this is a way of breaking through the first island chain to reach the ocean," the account said.
New York Times