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Beware: Zone of contention ahead

Publication Date : 03-12-2013


While two unarmed American B-52 bombers flew brazenly unannounced through an "air defence identification zone" established by China in the airspace over the disputed East China Sea, carriers like Singapore Airlines and Qantas were quick to say they would play by China's rules.

Was Washington being overly defiant and were the commercial operators too pliant?

It all hinges on the interpretation of such buffer zones which other nations have set up unilaterally too. It's not a no-fly zone or a formal enlargement of sovereign airspace.

Rather, it is an assertion of a right to know who is flying in that area and their flight plan.

The United States demands this information too but only from those headed to America. If no more than routine reporting is required in such zones, people would feel secure in the knowledge that all air movements are being properly accounted for to counter terrorist or other threats.

However, if zones are created with expansionist intent and a nation seeks to control aircraft in international airspace, including with explicit threats to bring them down, this would spark alarm, as it has done.

What makes China's latest action particularly menacing is the threat of a "defensive emergency response". Issuing even a veiled threat of military force is bound to provoke challenges like Japan's and South Korea's attempts to cock a snook at China's arrogation of airspace authority. Presumably to show it means business, China had dispatched fighter jets and its aircraft carrier with escorting warships to the area.

If unfriendly acts are ratcheted up in this manner, it wouldn't take much for things to get out of control, and it would take a lot for parties to climb down later.

Heightening tensions this way is unbecoming of a rising power of China's stature.

Its diplomatic charm offensive in the region and the dangling of economic carrots are clearly at odds with the muscular foreign policy that it seems to be busily crafting now.

President Xi Jinping must know that focus on his ambitious domestic programmes will suffer if the country has to contend with foreign disputes during the years leading up to 2020 - what the Chinese call "a period of strategic opportunity".

If misjudgments lead to dangerous conflicts, it will jeopardise not just the "new deal" for China's billions, outlined by President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, but also the promise of the Asian Century that can benefit many in the region. For both to happen, cool heads and wise counsel will have to prevail.


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