China’s game of chicken


China’s Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) extending to territories it does not control is just the latest example of its jurisdictional creep that reflects a larger strategy to supplant the United States as the preeminent power in Asia. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has responded to China’s aggression with words of cautious criticism but no castigatory step, not even delaying Vice President Joe Biden’s Beijing visit. China gave no ground to Biden during his Dec. 4-5 visit.

Washington has not explicitly called on China to roll back the ADIZ. Indeed, with its advisory to U.S. airlines to respect China’s new ADIZ, it has opened a rift with ally Japan at a time when the imperative is for presenting a united front against an escalatory action that even Biden admits is “a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” causing “significant apprehension in the region.”

Japan has asked its carriers to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies.

Washington is signaling that if Beijing backed away from this unusual demand and set up a military hotline with Tokyo to forestall an accidental military flare-up, it may be willing to live with the Chinese ADIZ — a position certain to displease Japan.

Let’s be clear: At stake in the East China Sea are not just some flyspeck islands but regional power balance, a rules-based order, freedom of navigation of the skies and seas, and access to maritime resources, including seabed minerals. If China gets its way, the path to a Sino-centric Asia would open.

As China accumulates economic and military power, it has increasingly taken to flexing its muscles, ratcheting up territorial disputes with multiple neighbors and seeking to alter the status quo in Asia through surprise actions. This is alienating it from its neighbors and further calling into question its “peaceful rise” claim.

The ADIZ establishment was cleverly timed to coincide with the unveiling of the interim Iran nuclear deal in Geneva so as to take advantage of the U.S. and international distraction. Shrewdly timing an action and achieving a major tactical surprise against an opponent are key elements in China’s strategic doctrine.

China’s latest action is a reminder that Obama must turn his attention from the preoccupations of the Middle East to the potentially combustible situation in East Asia. To make the promise of his Asian “pivot” real, he must be willing to assert U.S. leadership in order to help tame China’s belligerence and reassure allies.

Sending two unarmed B-52 bombers on “routine” runs through the Chinese ADIZ was tokenism that cannot obscure the need for crafting a credible response. Unfortunately, Obama seems more interesting in balancing America’s relationships in Asia than in checkmating an aggressive China.

Obama’s Asia policy seeks to reap the benefits of building closer engagement with Asian states — including China, now central to U.S. economic and strategic interests — while charting a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes. This delicate balancing act, however, implies strategic and moral equivalence, even though the coercion and aggression is largely by China against states that are America’s allies or strategic partners.

For example, in the current geopolitical crisis, Washington is urging restraint also on Japan’s part, lest any escalation force the U.S. to take sides, undermining its policy to manage China’s rise without trying to contain it. Washington is seeking to manage Sino-Japanese tensions, too, by urging both sides to tamp down their nationalistic rhetoric and reduce the risk of escalation or miscalculation through crisis-management and confidence-building measures. This is the message Biden took to Tokyo and Beijing.

Yet the focus on the dual management of China’s rise and Sino-Japanese tensions obfuscates the broader test of power in the Asia-Pacific that Chinese actions represent. It also obscures the then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ January 2011 warning that China’s long-term goal is to push the United States and its military assets farther out in the Pacific.

In this light, the Obama administration’s stance not to challenge China directly only aids its creeping aggression in Asia.

China is nibbling at territories held by several neighbors, as highlighted by growing Chinese incursions across the long, disputed Himalayan border with India, its success in outwitting the Philippines to gain effective control of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its aggressive moves against Vietnam over their unsettled maritime boundary.

Its self-declared ADIZ in the East China Sea even covers the sky over the South Korean-held Leodo Isle (“Suyan Rock” to Beijing), prompting Seoul to expand its own air-defense zone.

China’s ADIZ, while aimed at solidifying its claims to territories held by Japan and South Korea, increases regional tensions and the risks of Sino-Japanese conflict.

Compelling aircraft transiting the zone to accept the new Chinese rules won’t be easy for Beijing, given China’s limited early warning radar and in-flight refueling capabilities and the refusal of some neighboring states, especially Japan, to fall in line. As part of its step-by-step strategy, however, Beijing has no intention to enforce the zone immediately.

Efforts at enforcement will come later when circumstances are more favorable. Right now, the priority of China’s leaders is to prevail in the dangerous game of chicken that they have started.

If China is able to ride out international criticism while holding its ground, it will be emboldened to set up — as Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has warned — a similarly expansive air-defense zone in the South China Sea, more than 80 percent of which it now formally claims. A Chinese government spokesman said Nov. 27, according to Xinhua, that “China will set up other ADIZs in due time after completing relevant preparations.”

That is why it is important for the U.S. to draw the line now over China’s territorial creep. Otherwise, China — in the absence of any geopolitical blowback — will continue to subvert the status quo in the East and South China Seas, along its border with India, and even on the cross-border flows of Asia’s major rivers, which originate in the Chinese-annexed Tibetan plateau.

Without a concerted U.S.-led effort to push back against China’s aggression in the East China Sea, it won’t be long before another Chinese encroachment occurs.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

(c) The Japan Times, 2013.