China reforms can't stop at water's edge

The Chinese military's provocative moves on Japan-controlled islands do not match the spirit of reform in the Communist Party's recent plenum. Wiser heads in China need to ensure the country's peaceful rise as a power.

AP Photo/Kyodo News/File
A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's P-3C Orion surveillance plane flies over islands in the East China Sea called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. China's new maritime air defense zone is unenforceable and dangerous, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Nov. 25 in a continuing war of words over air space that includes the area above islands claimed by both nations.

The world hoped for big reforms to start this month in China after its top leaders wrapped up a twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party. The promised changes include a looser one-child policy and more land rights for farmers. Prime Minister Li Keqiang spoke of China creating a peaceful global environment and a stable neighborhood.

The party even pledged to “make Chinese culture go global,” an assertion of national “soft power” – although China is already well known for its food and arts.

Many of the party’s promises of reform may yet be implemented. But on Nov. 24, the world saw a very different China.

In an unexpected and provocative move, the Chinese military declared an “air-defense identification zone” over a group of islands long controlled by Japan. It threatened to take action against any aircraft entering the newly claimed airspace.

To press its point, China sent two large reconnaissance aircraft into the area, backed up by jet fighters. Japanese F-15 jets scrambled to chase away the Chinese planes. The incident was serious enough to trigger a reminder by the United States that it would help Japan defend itself against any attack on its territory under a mutual defense treaty.

China’s latest action over the islands belies its claims for a “peaceful rise” as a world power. Its move has sent shivers among many of its neighbors, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Even South Korea, which has cozied up to China at the expense of its ties with Japan, appears alarmed.

Many other countries, including Japan and the US, have declared areas outside their immediate national airspace as “air-defense identification zones.” But they usually don’t use such declarations to dispute territory, insist on prior notification by aircraft, and make threats that might result in an attack.

Both Japan and China say they do not want a war over the islands. But Beijing’s moves in trying to show sovereignty over the islands runs the risk of a miscalculation by either side’s military. The newly declared zone is also outside international norms.

Beijing leaders need to listen to calmer voices within China.

“Now is not the moment for their militaries to compete in strength, but for their leaders to compete in wisdom,” Wang Jinling, a former Chinese military officer who heads a think tank in Beijing, said in a Monitor interview.

And a former Chinese ambassador, Wu Jianmin of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, warned in a Nov. 24 article in the Chinese press that “if disgust and resentment are felt when China speaks out, then the more China speaks, the worse the outcome will be.” Mr. Wu has long warned of the rise of nationalism, saying China cannot afford to alienate other nations.

“A big-picture approach means that China has to show consideration to the well-being of all humanity and the future of the world. China’s national interests have already become integrated with the prosperity of the rest of the world. China cannot develop without the world, and the world cannot prosper and stabilize without China either,” he wrote in the official Global Times.

Japan and China command the world’s third- and second-largest economies, respectively. They are close yet distant neighbors with a long past. Yet strangely, their top leaders, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, have yet to hold a summit.

Instead of provoking Japan over a few uninhabited islands and not living up to his rhetoric about peace, Mr. Xi would be wise to meet his counterpart and treat Japan as an equal in East Asia. China’s promise of reform would be for naught if the two Asian giants went to war.

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