Skip to main content

Opinion: China strikes balance between sovereignty and stability

By Shen Dingli, Professor at Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai
November 29, 2013 -- Updated 0521 GMT (1321 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Xi has reshaped China's foreign policy, stressing sovereignty and stability
  • Shen Dingli: East China Sea ADIZ looks to be China's latest attempt to stress this approach
  • Facing increasing security challenges, Beijing is likely to respond in kind, Shen Dingli says

Editor's note: Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. The opinions in this article are solely those of Shen Dingli.

(CNN) -- Since President Xi Jinping assumed power, he's reshaped China's foreign policy by recalibrating its stresses on sovereignty and stability, what the Chinese call wei quan and wei wen.

On the one hand, China has stepped up its emphasis on sovereignty, especially concerning its territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (or the Senkakus, as they're known in Japan). 

Beijing has streamlined its various maritime agencies to make them more efficient and better coordinated, and it keeps sending government vessels to the area to demonstrate its jurisdiction over this region. 

READ: China flies fighter jets into air defense zone

Shen Dingli
Shen Dingli

More recently, it announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea to assure its sovereign security over territory, territorial water and space in the ADIZ.

On the other hand, China has attached more importance to its peripheral stability.  Despite its earlier skirmish over Ladakh with India in May, it cut a border defense co-operation agreement with New Delhi, to avoid mutual tailing between their patrols in border areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control.

And recently, President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang visited five out of 10 ASEAN countries, and wrapped up a cooperative deal with Vietnam to jointly develop an oil well in the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin.  China has also furthered its relations with major powers -- Xi visited Russia and the U.S. within the first three months of coming to power, promoting a "new type of major country relationship."

However, the quest for sovereignty and stability at the same time could prove challenging.  China's ADIZ announcement is turning into such a case.

Origins of the ADIZ

What do average Chinese, Japanese think?
China sends warplanes into disputed zone
Disputed islands buzzing with activity

The concept and practice of ADIZ are not China's invention. Rather, it was invented by the U.S. in 1951, with a purpose of identifying, through various means, incoming aircraft toward North America.  An ADIZ would usually be much bigger than one's territorial space, to allow sufficient time for such identification. 

READ: China-Japan dispute: What you need to know

Last weekend, the Chinese government announced its East China Sea ADIZ, asking foreign military planes flying over this area to identify themselves or, if necessary, the government would take defensive military action to enforce their identification. 

It is noted that the ADIZ is a national mandate, rather than demanded by any international law.  Therefore, any other country has to make its own sovereign choice to follow or not.

The establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ looks to be China's latest attempt to stress sovereignty and stability. The purpose of such identification is to assure China's sovereignty over its airspace without disrupting the international law of freedom of flight through international airspace. 

Obviously, China is able to identify those foreign civilian airlines which routinely fly to and from China. China will also be able to monitor and identify some foreign military aircraft flying over this zone. Establishing such a zone would allow China, ideally, additional time to predict if some of the flights over the area would be harmful and, consequently, if its defense establishment should take precautionary measures.

Challenge to status quo?

As establishing an ADIZ is a national endeavor rather than one mandated by international law, it is predictable other stakeholders could view it a challenge to the status quo, which suits their national interests.

Soon after China's ADIZ was announced, the U.S. sent two B-52 bombers into the new air zone on what the U.S. says was a pre-planned trip. It is understood that the U.S. strategic bombers neither loaded bombs nor were escorted by jet fighters, and didn't go too close to China's territorial space, signaling that the mission was not intended as a military threat. 

Such a restrained challenge seems to have led China to properly balance its quest for sovereignty and stability.

If and when China's newly declared ADIZ is truly challenged, as long as China could identify the incoming foreign aircraft and manage the challenge to a certain degree, China would not send aircraft to "greet" them.  But certainly, if the incoming foreign aircraft did not respond to China's query of identity, and if China detected a threatening posture, its air force would act in a defensive way.

Though the U.S. has presented its challenge to China establishing such a zone, the country's ADIZ may have more to do with Japan.

Japan's own ADIZ has been as close as to 130 kilometers from China, and includes the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, Islands.  If China's inclusion of Diaoyu Islands is intolerable to Japan due to their dispute over this area, Japan's inclusion of the same islands, some four decades ago, has much earlier provoked a similar degree of irritation.

Japan's establishment of its ADIZ was a breach of the status quo at that time. Japan further pushed the envelope last year by "nationalizing" the main islands, representing another effort to break the existing status quo.  Its persistent changing of the status quo cannot go unchallenged.

China's efforts to strike a balance between sovereignty and stability are destined to be difficult. However, facing increasing security challenges, Beijing is likely to respond in kind, while abiding by international law.

READ: Japan defies China's air defense zone

The opinions in this article are solely those of Shen Dingli, a professor and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT