NEWS ANALYSIS

How China bungled the launch of its air zone

Finesse and better timing could have helped avert backlash, experts say

CHINA'S announcement of its first-ever Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) a week ago sparked strong criticism from neighbours Japan and South Korea to countries farther afield like the United States and Australia.

The Chinese ADIZ not only partially overlaps the zones set up by neighbouring countries, but it also includes a group of disputed East China Sea isles called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan.

The outrage the new zone has caused prompts the question: Could Beijing have prevented the backlash or at least mitigated it?

Some analysts believe that had Beijing handled the launch of the ADIZ with finesse, better timing and more clarity, this might have minimised the damage to the image of a responsible, peace-loving Asian giant it is trying to burnish.

China has every right to set up its own air defence identification zone, the analysts say. After all, more than 20 countries including the US and Japan have set up such zones since the 1950s. These zones are often drawn up unilaterally as there are no international laws that determine their size.

Typically larger than a nation's territorial airspace, the zone serves much like an early warning system in an era of high-speed warplanes.

And so it could have been Beijing's "inept" handling of the announcement, rather than the ADIZ itself, that led to China shooting itself in the foot, said Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"What matters is not that China announced the ADIZ, it's that the timing was bad and the way China announced it was inept. It gave room for distortion, as most media outlets... now describe it as China's air defence zone rather than air defence identification zone," he told The Straits Times.

Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam said it was known that China had been studying the possibility of an ADIZ but, given rising Sino-Japan tensions recently, it was not the best time for the launch.

"The zone has been interpreted as testing the resolve of Japan and the US. I think the Chinese might have underestimated the intensity of the backlash," he said.

While its relationship with Tokyo has been testy, Beijing could have considered consulting Washington prior to the zone's establishment in the light of warming ties between their militaries recently, Professor Lam added.

University of Nottingham analyst Steve Tsang said China could have given prior notice of its intention, allowing time for others to respond and adjust.

"(But the way it) imposed (its ADIZ), which affects many countries and airlines without warning, is just about as bad as it could be handled," he added.

However, Professor Tsang noted that with the disputed islands at the centre of contention and fears over how a rising China is increasingly asserting itself, little else could have been done to quell the strong disapproval from various quarters.

Analyst Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College said concern stems from the fact that China's ADIZ has been defined "in a categorical manner that ignores the complexities and risks involved", such as the overlaps with other countries' zones.

But he noted that Beijing can help allay the concerns of its neighbours and other international airspace users by offering specific clarifications and reassurances.

"Otherwise, suspicions will grow that the new type of great power relations Beijing promotes is merely intended to signal that others should yield to a rising China's principled positions," Professor Erickson told The Straits Times in an e-mail reply.

Some ambiguity exists, such as whether the new rules, which require planes to submit their flight plans, apply to commercial jets in addition to military ones.

Shanghai-based security analyst Ni Lexiong defended the timing of China's announcement, saying it is precisely because Tokyo-Beijing relations had taken a turn for the worse that there was a need to declare the ADIZ.

Still, some experts say Beijing's lack of finesse in declaring its ADIZ shows China has yet to learn that raising its standing globally cannot be done through the barrel of a gun.

While its moves might have stemmed from a nationalistic perspective, the Chinese leadership "miscalculated" and failed to consider how its actions might be perceived by the international community, Prof Tsang said.

"The really big price for China is that this action has made it hard for any of its neighbours to believe in the 'peaceful rise' rhetoric of the previous Chinese administrations," he added.

esthert@sph.com.sg