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
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general has confessed to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in President Xi Jinping's war on corruption.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
A group in China escapes from a stuck elevator thanks to one man and his trusty hammer. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
Facebook's founder says he taught himself Mandarin and tested his skills with students in China.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
China launched an experimental spacecraft that is scheduled to orbit the moon before returning to Earth.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Full marks for ingenuity: This was a truly high-tech scam.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0526 GMT (1326 HKT)
The rationale behind Confucius Institutes -- an international chain of academic centers run by an arm of the Chinese government -- is understandable.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1113 GMT (1913 HKT)
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 0511 GMT (1311 HKT)
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
ADVERTISEMENT