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China's air zone announcement was just the beginning

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When China announced its decision to claim a wider air zone that encompassed the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Island territories, the East China Sea erupted into conflict reminiscent of the Cold War era. In response, the United States and Japan declared the zone illegitimate and flew military aircraft through it, while China deployed fighter jets to identify them.

But this was not a simple instance of China overstepping and getting burned - nor was it as sudden and unexpected as headlines suggest. Rather, it was the manifestation of a longstanding Chinese regional strategy that is only just beginning. And China is likely quite pleased with how it is playing out thus far.

For years, China has been looking for opportune moments to test the existing status quo of regional security, and then advance its self-interests. Ever since the summer of 2012, when Japan's Noda-led government announced its intention to purchase more of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner, China has felt that the precarious equilibrium between the two countries had shifted. It was only a matter of time before China would try and change the status quo.

From that perspective, China's timing was sensible, at least with regard to how the United States might respond. Relative China hardliners like Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell departed at the beginning of President Obama's second administration. Obama's political ratings are at record lows following a series of domestic challenges, including a government shutdown that forced him to miss the APEC summit. At the moment that China pulled the trigger, the administration had just announced a makeup Asia trip for April, and Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, had just announced his imminent resignation, with no successor yet planned. Meanwhile, China's foreign minister was in Geneva with Secretary of State John Kerry, who had his hands full with the interim Iran nuclear deal announcement - and China had been constructive in getting the deal done. If ever there was a good time to see if the United States would deliver a softball response to a direct Chinese challenge, this was it.

So the time was ripe for China to advance some of its key long-term regional goals: show that its claims in the territorial dispute are a core interest; build a growing international coalition of support for its position; and isolate Japan, particularly by driving a wedge between it and the United States.

On the last goal - creating daylight between the United States and Japan - how did China fare? Initially, not well. The U.S.-Japan response seemed airtight at first, with Washington dismissing China's claim and sending two B-52s through the air zone.

But in the days since, China has reason to see the air zone dispute as a fruitful avenue for gains. Following concerns from American commercial airline carriers that their travel into the zone was in breach of China's new rules, the State Department and the FAA advised the airlines to comply with Chinese notification requirements; this announcement came immediately after the Japanese foreign ministry had explicitly told Japanese carriers to defy the ruling. While the FAA's decision was pushed by bureaucratic procedure, it was accepted by the White House, which has no stomach for ratcheting up tensions and believes that the flyover and official rejection of China's claim already defended the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Japan, China, and South Korea - which had been previously scheduled - offers further evidence of China's upper hand, more because of what didn't happen and what went unsaid. In Japan, Biden commiserated with President Abe about the air zone, before departing for China. During a 5-hour meeting between the Vice President and Xi Jinping, neither leader publicly mentioned the air zone, with Biden instead focusing on the importance of the U.S.-China relationship and the need for "candor" and "trust." While he later addressed U.S. businessmen in Beijing and said he was "very direct" with Xi in explaining the U.S. stance on the air zone, his public hedging with Xi shows just how much the U.S. wants to play the role of intermediary and stabilizer, rather than digging in against China and escalating conflict.

After all, while the U.S. has repeatedly rejected China's air zone claim, it has stopped short of pushing for China to rescind it. Beijing can't roll back the air zone and accede to Japanese demands, or risk reducing its power domestically. In turn, the U.S. realizes that pushing for China to do so would only ratchet up tensions. From China's perspective, this constitutes a victory: Biden's trip has served to solidify the new status quo, as, to some extent, it casts the U.S. as the arbiter between China and Japan. Japan's stance has always been to deny China's claim altogether, and state that any negotiations are a nonstarter. By playing an intermediary role, the U.S. is permitting China's new narrative of an acknowledged territorial dispute to bake in to the international community's thinking.

Where have we seen such tactics from China before? The whole strategic approach is similar to Beijing's longstanding policy on Taiwan, where the blueprint went as follows: work bilaterally with countries around the world that it can influence, using political threats and economic inducements to erode support for the offending position. That took decades with Taiwan, but ultimately worked in China's favor. For years, China claimed that tension over Taiwan could lead to war with the United States. Yet it ultimately became a win for Beijing, with Taiwan's international support eroded and the gradual integration of Taiwan into the mainland, first economically and ultimately politically.

The air zone declaration and its aftermath make it clear that China intends for its security position to win out in the East China Sea, and expects it to be a faster process, given the shift of the regional security and economic power balance in its favor. That position is evident in China's harsh rebukes toward Australia after Canberra summoned the Chinese ambassador home to answer for the air zone announcement. Given China's economic influence in Australia, Beijing was able to take a harsher position there than it did with the United States.

In short, Beijing lost some face when it didn't respond to the American flyover, but if you're grading Beijing's strategy on the issue, it earns high marks. Yes, there is a risk of pushback in response to Chinese aggression, as neighbors could further align with the U.S. China's actions could make it easier, domestically, for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to succeed in revising the constitution to strengthen Japan's security capabilities (a policy that, according to opinion polls, a majority of Japanese still don't agree with). But as long as China engages on a bilateral level with carrots and sticks, dialing pressure up and down in proportion to its influence over individual countries, it will likely chip away at resistance to its goals. And this episode has made those goals even clearer: make no doubt, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are a core interest and China intends to own them.

Longer term, conflict in the East China Sea remains the greatest potential danger to the international order and the global economy. For now, China will wait for the next attractive moment to shift the status quo in its favor.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

11 Comments
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I'd have to agree with the above analysis. The Chinese have won out during this current escalation. Biden soft pedaled it. I'm sure the Japanese government was quite disappointed.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

@Speed Agreed, Biden dropped the ball and failed to live up to expectations. Half hearted words and a call for the region to lower tensions, despite the US B52's contributing to the increase of tensions. That said, China can want the Senkaku islands as much as they please, but that doesn't mean they'll get them. Japan will find a way to thwart China, whether that is with one major blow, or with several annoying blockages, either way, China will back down eventually. Of course, if they took the issue up with ICJ, a resolution could come sooner. Optimistically speaking anyway.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Yes, but where does it end? Perhaps China still harbours thoughts of taking over or conquering countries and making them Chinese. Those days ended with WW2. Is Iraq or Afghanistan now quasi American state? No. Japan surrendered to the USA because atomic bombs were dropped on them. If China were to threaten Japan, Taiwan or the Philipines with a nuclear threat they immediatly invoke a like response from the USA.

Yes China, you are a big and powerful country and will probably be the next super power. But does this mean you need to conquer new terroties? It's not like China is small. But my fear is that those who will not be on the battle field could play a game of chicken and keep ramping up the odds. And then it just needs one stupid decison, one finger on the button to up the odds one step too high, and we have disaster and possibly WW3. WW1 started on an act of stupidity. There is nothing in the development of humanity since then that has assured me the same could not happen again.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

SimondBDec. 13, 2013 - 03:56PM JST

Yes, but where does it end?

China has proposed to the US that they want to split the Pacific Ocean at Hawaii, and that China takes west half and the US takes the east half. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2007/aug/17/inside-the-ring-11086842/

West Pacific includes New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. With that much under its control, it is easy for China to take the remaining half of the Pacific.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

SimondB "Japan surrendered to the USA" not " because atomic bombs were dropped" Japan wanted to stop the war much earlier so asked Soviet to work as mediator but Soviet invaded Japan instead. It was a matter of time Japan surrendered. There were no food left.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

China will not back up on this issue. Actually, since 1949, China has always done what he said, be Korea war, Vietnam war, border wars with india and USSR. Do not expect that China will back up on the island issue. Thinking it else is just a day dreaming.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

If you give a mouse the Senkaku's, it will want Okinawa.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The Chinese (current administration and historically) are MASTERS of the Long Con.

Any culture that produces a book called "The Art of War" that is later used by various cultures and business knows a thing or two about long range planning and manipulation.

3 ( +2 / -0 )

@davidake Just because they never did, don't think they never will.

That's like saying a country has never started a war, so they will not. Well it will happen as there was a time America never started a war & all country's. History does not mean anything.

Do have to look at the market back then, & how much money do they have now to build up mass weapons for war?

What did they do for the first time "just about", build up mass weapons as fast as they could, and are now doing things that will make them in history =s starting wars in the future .

Did Tibet start a war with china or do anything??? They wanted oil and killed many people to go in and get it.

China rich and hacking weapons tec, and building up beyond massive, is not china from 1,000 years ago or 1949.

War is going to happen and we did it knowing from what happened in the past. There was a reason why we never gave them a market 30 years ago, and 16 years ago why many people didn't want to risk it.

It turns out them people worried about giving china a market "even after china said nothing would happen "in the area", nor would they build up, or ever build attack weapons or aircraft carries" were right 100%.

China is full of BS as has been busted braking promises and lying mass time 1 after another. Hacking to get tec to start wars.

Then people that new giving a communist country that mass murder there own people, new what was going to happen as did i 2.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think what Biden or America did was very responsible. By making its stance seemingly softer to China, US is giving both China and Japan each a kill switch. It is only in such a situation where both adversaries has an affirmative influence in the matter will they be calm and confident enough to manage their differences sensibly.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

China is doing what the other powerhead nations have been doing hitherto.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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