The ‘China Threat’ Narrative Stumbles
SNA (Tokyo) — The Mainichi Shinbun has opened the year with a blockbuster exclusive news story that is likely to be underplayed, or even ignored, by most of the rest of the Japanese media.
One of the biggest headlines in November 2013 was the public announcement by Beijing that it was establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large swathe of the East China Sea. This new ADIZ included the skies over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, and it overlapped with part of Japan’s existing ADIZ.
The Abe administration reacted sharply to the unveiling of the Chinese ADIZ, portraying it as a threat to freedom of navigation and to the rule of law. As the prime minister himself put it when addressing a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, “Moves to unilaterally change the status quo, moves to put restrictions on the international aviation order, which is built on freedom of flight, are strong concerns.”
The alarmist reaction in Tokyo was largely echoed in Washington DC as well, as the Obama administration made declarations of support for their Japanese allies, sent a flight of B-52s over the disputed islands, and produced much anxious analysis about the expanding ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
A characteristic article was that authored by James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon and published by Reuters on December 16. These two authors contended that China’s ADIZ was fundamentally different from that of other countries (like Japan and the United States) because it was uniquely of a “unilateral and assertive nature.”
These influential American authors presented two “simple steps” that Beijing could have taken in order dispel international concerns over its ADIZ and to demonstrate “that its goal is benign”: first, they should have “consulted with others” in advance of the declaration; and, second, “China could have made clear how it intends to implement the zone.”
And this is precisely where the New Years revelations by the Mainichi Shinbun truly demolish the whole basis of the oft-repeated argument that China had done something uniquely aggressive when it declared its ADIZ in November.
The Mainichi Shinbun obtained secret documents of the Defense Ministry (fortunately for them, and the public, the new secrets law is not yet in force to suppress such inconvenient information), which reveal that senior PLA officers had told their Japanese counterparts in May 2010 that they had established the ADIZ in the East China Sea, and that they were moving toward making it public in the future. Moreover, they invited dialogue with the Japan Self-Defense Forces on how the two countries’ overlapping ADIZs might be managed in order to reduce the possibility of mishaps.
Moreover, the Japanese government was, according to the Mainichi Shinbun, well aware “in early 2013” that “final preparations” for the announcement of the Chinese ADIZ were underway.
We can safely surmise that if the Japanese government knew the declaration was forthcoming, that the US government, with its vast intelligence agencies, was also aware of it.
So the announcement of the Chinese ADIZ may have been a “surprise” to the general public, but it was certainly not a surprise to either the Japanese nor the US governments, which had in fact been tipped off by the PLA itself several years earlier.
What emerges, therefore, is not the sudden, aggressive, unilateral action by the Chinese government that has been so vividly portrayed by the world’s media for the last couple months, but rather a careful, longterm process that culminated in the November 2013 public declaration.
It is also worth noting that in June 2010 — one month after the Japanese were informed by China of their intention to establish a large, overlapping ADIZ in the East China Sea — the Japanese government announced (unilaterally) an expansion of its own ADIZ in the East China Sea by 22 kilometers in order to include Yonaguni Island.
In conclusion, the Mainichi Shinbun’s exclusive, which we have no doubt will be played down or entirely ignored by the Abe administration, should serve as a cautionary tale to independent observers not to accept too quickly and too blindly the “China threat” narrative being shopped around by those with vested interests in expanding the scope of the national security state.
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