China’s East Asian Gamble
The general consensus among analysts regarding the expanded Air Defense Identification Zone established by the People’s Republic of China in November is that it was simply a mistake. But when you consider the possibility that China is playing for the long term, and further examine the nature of the US response, President Xi could turn out to be the diplomatic victor. The United States’ de facto acceptance of the ADIZ sets the Chinese up well for more assertive action to actually establish sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the future.
The expansion was chosen deliberately at a time when the US was distracted by negotiations with the Iranians, and amid a general feeling in the international community that President Obama would be weak in the face of a security crisis. On the surface, it appeared that the Chinese leadership underestimated the willingness of its chief rival to stand up to regional aggression. The US almost immediately scrambled warplanes to demonstrate defiance of the ADIZ, as did Japan and South Korea.
Despite the seemingly firm initial response, only a few days later in a much less publicized move, the FAA ordered US airlines to comply with the rules of the ADIZ. Had the US not declared this, China almost certainly would have been the loser here, at least in the short term, having wagered on a weak response from the United States and definitively and immediately been proven wrong. Additionally, the Chinese leadership would have been practically humiliated every time a US plane passed through their region without giving prior warning, while the Chinese would be unable to do anything about it. This would seriously damage the leverage China has in East Asia. Instead, the US opted for the weaker, seemingly safer option. Arguably, this is the first major mistake of President Obama’s refocus on Asia.
Prime Minister Abe of Japan predictably did not follow his counterpart’s example. President Park of South Korea took things a step further, extending the Korean zone substantially, to the point of overlap with both the Chinese and Japanese zones. The reasoning behind the Japanese response is most likely not because of differences in macro policy towards China between Tokyo and Washington, but rather that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands contained within the ADIZ have significant symbolic value for the Japanese and Chinese, and therefore must be treated less timidly by the Japanese.
All things considered, President Xi’s gamble seems to have paid off. Yes, it provoked a strong response by South Korea, a significant player to be sure, but it is not as significant as Japan. On balance he essentially won a diplomatic victory against the United States. The administration has demonstrated, through the FAA declaration, its virtual acceptance of the expansion. This is a message that the Chinese will not forget the next time they decide to provoke a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
An argument could be made that the administration had no choice but to advise US airlines to respect the ADIZ, that it was a necessary precaution to protect the lives of US citizens. But this argument ignores the actual nature of ADIZs. The Chinese extension of its ADIZ is not, as has been depicted, a claim of sovereignty over the extended region. ADIZs do not permit the owners to shoot down aircraft that enter said zone without prior warning. They are simply “identification zones” that require aircraft to give prior warning before entering the area, but in the event that those aircraft do not give warning, the owner of an ADIZ is not permitted to fire on said aircraft. Given that President Xi is a rational actor, there is no real risk of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force firing upon US aircraft. That reality makes the FAA declaration seem even weaker.
That is not to say that this is a relatively moderate move, or that it should be judged as reasonable. It was provocative, destabilized the region, and might have triggered a response from its regional neighbors that President Xi was not anticipating. However, it is likely that this is an early step in the long-term goal of the Chinese leadership to establish administrative control of the Senkaku Islands. A future declaration may be made by the Chinese leadership on the sovereignty of the Islands that would permit them a strong reaction to violators, but as it stands now, the ADIZ does not.
If this is viewed as the first crisis of administration’s “pivot to Asia,” it does not exactly inspire confidence among American allies in the region. Speaking generally, the future of curbing Chinese influence in East Asia looks to be more based around Japan and South Korea than the US. Shinzo Abe has taken significant steps, ones that the Chinese government is no doubt concerned about, to restore Japan’s military. This has led to the creation of a national security council, and releasing for the first time a national security strategy which specifically states a need to expand the missile defense and increase naval power because of changes in the regional balance of power.
With a more regionally involved Japan and Korea assuming greater responsibility for maintaining a balance of power, the United States’ may turn out to be a much less significant actor in the long-awaited pivot to Asia than was expected.