No sooner had we bid farewell to a year of rising tensions in the East China Sea than 2014 was bringing us more action over the islets at the center of the dispute — only this time, things got a little strange.
We begin with news that the controversial Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extension declared by Beijing on Nov. 23—which people who worry about such things worried would increase the likelihood of war with Japan—was actually declared … in 2010.
According to a Mainichi Shimbun report on Jan. 2, senior officers from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) informed their Japanese counterparts — in secret, mind you — during a conference in May 2010 that China had already set up an ADIZ that incorporated the islands, but had yet to make the announcement public.
The Mainichi, which got a hold of the secret minutes taken at a meeting of Japanese government officials and PLA staff at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies in Beijing, writes that the zone was almost identical to that described in the November 2013 bombshell.
Perhaps the Hu Jintao regime at the time didn’t feel confident enough it could declare the ADIZ and get away with it, or felt that it lacked the means to enforce it once it was announced. But that was then, and this is now. A much more self-confident Xi Jinping is now in office, and China is a lot less reluctant to flex its muscles than it was back then. Or perhaps the PLA has a stronger voice today and prevailed upon the civilian leadership, as there indeed are signs that perhaps not everybody in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was on the same page on the issue.
So if the report is true, Japan had known for more than three years of China’s overlapping ADIZ, but chose to keep the matter secret, at least until Beijing made the matter public. Perhaps Tokyo, whose policy on the islets is to deny the very existence of contending claims, feared that making China’s ADIZ public knowledge would, well, contradict that very policy, and thereby inform the world that a dispute indeed exists. Interestingly, Japan extended its own ADIZ to include the islets (and parts of Taiwan’s airspace to boot) in June 2010 and did so in a manner that, to be fair, also lacked consultations with affected neighbors, such as Taiwan. Until we get secret minutes from the Japanese side, we can speculate that Japan’s extension in 2010 was in fact in response to China’s unofficial ADIZ.
Does that mean much, now that we’re in 2014 and the two ADIZs are facts on the ground (and in the air)? Not really, except that it makes it much more difficult for Tokyo to deny that there is a territorial dispute over the islets and whatever natural resources might lie in their vicinity. Political scientists and historians can debate all they want over the validity of old maps and documents, and this won’t change the fact that China’s ADIZ is an attempt to “legalize” its claims to the area.
But what good are secret documents and controversial air defense zones when ordinary citizens can singlehandedly resolve the matter by flying to the islets. Think the whole ADIZ affair is hot air? Wait till you hear about the 35-year-old Xu Shuaijun, who set off from Fujian Province at the crack of dawn on Jan. 1 on board a hot air balloon for a 360 km journey to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
“Fly to the Diaoyu islands and be a Chinese with an attitude,” the native of Hebei Province and “balloon enthusiast” (China’s foreign ministry’s description) wrote on his Weibo account on Jan. 2, according to the Global Times.
Xu may have had plenty of attitude, but sadly for him — and for the Chinese who lose sleep over the small rocks in the middle of the East China Sea — attitude wasn’t enough to complete the journey. Seven-and-a-half hours into his adventure, and a little more than 20 km from his destination, his multicolored contraption suffered a mechanical failure (no, he wasn’t shot down by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force) and crashed into the ocean.
Luckily for Xu, Taiwanese rescue authorities spotted the cook-turned-daredevil and contacted the Japanese Coast Guard, which dispatched a helicopter and fished him out of the water before handing him over to crew from a China maritime police vessel cruising in the environs.
Xu’s motives for embarking on his crazy adventure may have been nationalistic, but despite himself, he demonstrated how the three sometimes belligerents can set disputes aside and cooperate when necessary. Let’s hope that this spirit prevails over the coming year.