It is also reminiscent of the attempt at enlarging the meaning of the EEZ. Both steps are part of a strategy that Sydney University's John Lee calls China's salami-slicing—with each move, China seeks to take another slice of authority over nearby waters. Other examples are progressive attempts at enforcing the economic rights of the EEZ claim in the South China Sea.
The East China Sea ADIZ “is a strategically clever move because it has forced other countries to accept China's authority and gives a pretext to escalate” in a future crisis, says Medcalf. Crews of foreign airliners passing through the zone but not on their way to China are, in effect, doffing their caps at Beijing as they report flight plans and maintain the required radio contact.
In the U.S. on Dec. 3, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, wrote to National Security Adviser Susan Rice asking the administration to reassess the FAA's recommendation that U.S. airlines follow China's new rules. “By advising U.S. airlines to comply with China's ADIZ, the administration is legitimizing Beijing's attempt to subvert international airspace at the same time it is also, rightfully, condemning such a move,” Forbes wrote.
From the outside, China's actions look simply aggressive, especially when its forces take such action as illuminating Japanese warships with fire-control radars. But from China's point of view, controlling nearby waters creates a defensive buffer, says Li Mingjiang, a specialist on Chinese foreign policy at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. The purported EEZ rights are key: If China can get other countries to accept its ownership of the many disputed islets, rocks and shoals stretching from near South Korea to near Indonesia, and if it can enforce a rule that foreign warships and warplanes may enter the resulting enormous EEZ only with its permission, then it will feel a lot safer. The buffer is not yet built, so the salami-slicing will continue until it is, or until China is somehow persuaded to stop.
But why should China feel that it needs such a colossal security buffer? After all, other countries do not feel a need to keep foreign forces at a distance of hundreds of kilometers. The answer is that China still has the “us-and-them” mentality familiar in the West before World War I. “China perceives itself and is probably perceived by the West as an outsider in the international system,” says Li. The country has few real friends except Pakistan and North Korea, the latter also part of its strategic buffer. Ordinary Chinese speak quite easily of the possibility of war, especially with Japan.
Many of them are also confused by the willingness of the West to tolerate what the British military historian Max Hastings has called Japan's “collective rejection of historical fact,” the millions of deaths it caused in 1937-45, mostly in China. It would be as if Russia were expected to live with a Germany unrepentant for its wartime atrocities and remembering little about them.
Li points out that China sees its buffer being resisted, and its security undermined, every time the U.S. works to bring down the North Korean regime, preserve the independence of Taiwan (effectively, the biggest disputed island), and back Japan and Southeast Asian countries against Chinese territorial bullying.
Domestic politics may be playing a part in the current dispute—or they may next time. China's foreign policy is tough not just because authoritarian rulers like it that way. The Chinese people, pumped up on partly manufactured nationalism, generally want their country to throw its weight around even more. Any sign of weakness in foreign affairs attracts widespread criticism.
For years it has been commonly said that the party relies on fast economic growth and nationalism to stay in power. That has raised concern about what the rulers may do to heighten nationalism when the economy slows—which it is doing now. At the same time, the party is under pressure from a populace that, thanks to the Internet, finds it ever easier to share grievances over everything from pollution to corruption and, coming soon, likely disruptive economic reforms planned by the new administration of President Xi Jinping.