With China increasingly asserting its claims in the Pacific, Steven Balbirnie looks at why China’s neighbours are becoming increasingly alarmed

China’s announcement in late November of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea has caused considerable alarm globally, but this is only the latest incident in an ongoing geopolitical struggle that has significantly escalated in recent years.

Under the new rules for this zone, China must be supplied with the flight plans of all aircraft passing through the zone, and these aircraft are obliged to maintain two-way radio communication with the Chinese at all times.

This may be China’s first declared ADIZ, but it is one of roughly twenty globally, with other such zones having been declared by the United States, Britain, Norway, South Korea and Japan. So why is China’s so controversial?

This ADIZ includes a chain of disputed islands known as the Diaoyus to China and the Senkakus to Japan. This has been a long running low-level dispute that has escalated since Japan officially nationalised the islands in September 2012 by purchasing them from their private owners.

This action greatly angered China, which considers these islands Chinese territory. This dispute has led to a mounting wave of nationalism in both countries seemingly encouraged by their respective governments.

The newly declared ADIZ is only the tip of the iceberg in China’s efforts to pursue what it regards as its legitimate maritime aspirations. China’s defence budget has expanded five times in the last decade and it has become even more assertive since surpassing Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, began sea trials in 2011 and China has also announced an expansion of its drone programme to include the construction of eleven coastal drone bases by 2015.

While the ADIZ may have been deliberately flouted by military reconnaissance flights by American, Japanese and South Korean planes, its very existence could set a potentially dangerous precedent and it also represents the boldest move yet in a broader pattern of Chinese expansion in the Pacific.

While most focus has been on the tensions between China and Japan, China’s ongoing disputes over the South China Sea with many of its southern neighbours reveal much more obvious motives for its claims.

China claims virtually the entirety of the South China Sea. $5 trillion of cargo shipping pass through these waters annually. The Paracel islands which are disputed with Vietnam are surrounded by bountiful fishing waters, while the Spratly islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, may hold reserves of 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath them.

This is clearly a dispute that goes beyond mere jingoistic nationalism. It is in this region that the Chinese navy have decided to conduct the first sea trials of the Liaoning, and it is feared that if the East China Sea ADIZ is not contested then an ADIZ for the South China Sea is bound to follow.

The gravest significance, however, may be found not in the actions of China, but in the reactions they have been provoked among the other key parties in the world who have interests in the Pacific.

Not only have the US, Japan and South Korea called for the repeal of the Chinese ADIZ over the East China Sea, the European Union and Australia have also criticised the move.

Official statements would indicate, however, that China has little intention to heed this international pressure. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded to European concerns by asking “European countries can have air defence identification zones. Why can’t China?”

These responses, coupled with China’s refusal to participate in UN arbitration sought by the Philippines over the area of the South China Sea claimed by both countries, has undermined the faith of other nations in being able to take a moderate diplomatic approach towards China’s maritime expansion. China is currently the only state to ever refuse to participate in inter-state arbitration under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What we now see instead is an increasingly broadening naval arms race which bears more than a passing resemblance to that which occurred between Britain and Germany before the First World War.

Under the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy, by 2020, 60% of the US Fleet will be deployed in the Pacific rather than the 50/50 balance which currently exists between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

The US already has over 70,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Japan and has confirmed that it will stand by its treaty obligations to defend Japan.

The Japanese reaction has been even more alarming, with an astonishing increase in militarisation being pursued by the constitutionally pacifist country.

Japan has increased its defence budget for the first time in eleven years and has launched a new defence programme which has resulted in the setting up of a national security council, and envisages the establishment of a new amphibious military force in the style of the marines, the construction of new army bases in their south-western islands, the purchase of up to three drones from the US and an expanded Navy with an additional seven destroyers and six submarines.

Even India has been alarmed by Chinese maritime expansion, in particular the construction of ports with Chinese assistance in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In response India’s Navy has expanded from possessing a single battle-ready aircraft carrier at the beginning of 2013 to three by the end of the year.

With so many substantially armed countries, three of which possess nuclear weapons, seemingly being dragged into this vortex, some efforts towards de-escalation and negotiation are imperative before a minor incident potentially sparks a regional conflict. Such a conflict is surely an outcome that none of these countries wish to see.