China asserted an "air defense identification zone" in the East China Sea in November. Now, a power struggle in the area looms after US Vice President Joe Biden's attempts at mediation between China and Japan fell flat.
There was no lack of polite words in Beijing. US Vice President Joe Biden spoke of "new relations" between world powers, using words such as "trust" and "openness." At the same time, he criticized the creation of the air defense zone as a "provocative act."
Biden is said to have developed a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the past years. But Xi Jinping was not prepared to budge over the new air zone. The role of the US as Japan's protector and a guarantor of free shipping routes clashes with China's territorial claims and increasing self-confidence in economic and military matters.
Japan, China and the US are actually trade partners. Trade with China on the one hand and Japan and the US on the other amounted to almost 1 trillion dollars (736 million euros) in 2012. With that in mind, Biden naturally planed an Asia tour designed to focus on economic issues.
But on November 23, a Chinese military spokesman declared, without advance notice and without consulting any of its neighbors, the creation of an "air defense identification zone" in the East China Sea. China says all aircraft within it must obey its instructions or risk unspecified "defensive emergency measures."
Assertive new style
That move added a new topic to Biden's visit. The newly-declared zone overlaps with an existing Japanese and Korean air zone but, most of all, it covers a group of uninhabited islands claimed by China as the Diaoyu and by Japan as the Senkaku islands.
The creation of the air zone shows China's new, aggressive style of politics, according to Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based China expert. "Xi Jinping is very close to his generals, and I think he believes it's possible to project Chinese 'hard power' through means such as establishing the air defense identification zone," said Lam. He added that this position could enhance China's bargaining power in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in sovereignty disputes with neighboring countries.
Xi Jinping could have been mistaken. China's new defense zone was seen by all its neighbors as an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the disputed maritime area. Even Tokyo and Seoul pulled together, even though they, too, are fighting over the rocks in the sea.
Dispatching B-52 bombers over the area, the United States sent a clear message that the zone would not be respected. Japanese, Korean and even Taiwanese fighter jets also entered the zone without fulfilling demands to register their flight plans with Beijing - so far without provoking a military response from China.
China plays the nationalist card
Reactions appeared on the Internet, however, with calls for a strong response.
In an interview with DW, Frank Umbach, an East Asia expert with the Atlantic Council, wondered whether "the Chinese leadership can really still control this nationalism, which is especially powerful among a section of the youth and which has taken on alarming proportions, particularly on the Internet, as it has perhaps in the past."
The message from the state-run media in response to Biden's visit was loud and clear. The English-language "China Daily" accused Biden of making "erroneous and one-sided remarks" about the tensions in the East China Sea while he was in Japan. The "Global Times" stirred up nationalism in an official blog with an article called "Without the fatherland you are nothing," warning of an alleged conspiracy by Western anti-Chinese forces and asking users to support the Chinese Communist Party as the only way to protect China's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
For Lam, this is no coincidence. "Xi Jinping is deliberately stoking the flames of nationalism in order to legitimize the rule of the Communist Party," he said.
In the past, China has tried to present its rise in power to its neighbors as a "peaceful ascent." Now Beijing seems to be going down a new path. Lam expects additional airspace-identification zones to be set up in the near future - over the Yellow Sea and also over the South China Sea - where quarrels with the neighbors over sea territories are almost certain to arise.