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.