China’s air zone announcement was just the beginning

By Ian Bremmer
December 9, 2013

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.

PHOTO: The disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku isles in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, are seen from a fishing boat as a Japanese national flag flutters August 19, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Meyers

21 comments

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All this over these itty bitty islands? All international politics that really benefits no one. I’m disappointed in the Chinese for playing this game. It lures them closer to the US military industrial complex goal of starting another arms race and cold war.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Once again, the administration solves a problem, by basically giving somebody what they want.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

tmc – Not so much about these itty bitty islands. It’s more about the suspected gas reserve underneath them. China never bothered with these islands, and had no issue with Japanese controlling and colonizing these islands for decades, but immediately tried to lay claim when the gas reserve was found.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

@tmc how do you know a cold war isn’t desirable for the Chinese? As soon as the era of low borrowing cost is over interest of US debt alone could sustain the game on their side. For the US we will keep borrowing more to keep up. Yes we did win the cold war against the Soviets. But we didn’t owe them a penny then.

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Why don’t you start with Nixon’s trip to China, and the resulting U.S. downgrading of ties with Taiwan? Or the geographic fact, created over millions of years, that China is over there and we are over here?

Do you suppose that the writer has a political agenda?

Posted by Jim1648 | Report as abusive

@Jameson4Lunch, I didn’t know about gas reserves found there. If that is true, then it probably is the reason they are fighting about it.

@Whatsgoingon, you also may be right, but I doubt it. There is no indication of it in recent history, and I think the 3rd plenum would have been a bit different if that were the case. But economically I’ll bet they would like an arms race between a customer of theirs and the US. Now if they could arrange that….

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Ian Bremmer is correct in his analysis.

The ADIZ is yet another move that ties in with China’s long standing claims to what amounts to the entire South China Sea Basin -in complete disregard for territory and territorial waters that by virtue of international law belong to other nations there- and the country’s claims since the late 1970s to whatever might be found on the sea bed off its east coast well into international waters, on the grounds that these are run-off sediments from its two major rivers there.

China is moving now because it has concluded that the Obama administration has a very flexible interpretation of its self imposed “red lines”, when push actually comes to shove. And that the current occupant of the White House is far better at talking the talk than walking the walk, the polar opposite of a Truman who understood that it is best to speak softly but carry a big stick, ready for use.

China is playing a dangerous game of bluff poker because if it -intentionally or unintentionally- provokes an armed conflict -the outcome of which it can not control nor win- it stands to be the ultimate loser, risking a devastated economy and large portions of its foreign currency holdings frozen.

Posted by luctoretemergo | Report as abusive

Re-start the tariffs. 20% on all foreign manufactured goods immported into the United States. That’s what China charges us. So why do we now charge them 1.5%?

Re-start the tariffs. The trade war is well underway. Never fight while licking boots.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“[the East China Sea exclusion zone] was the manifestation of a longstanding Chinese regional strategy that is only just beginning”

Wrong, it began last year with China’s declaration that the entire South China Sea belonged to it. Read these two articles for some education:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pac ific-13748349
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/2 3/us-asean-southchinasea-insight-idUSBRE 93L16V20130423

Both the East China Sea and South China Sea include a great deal of oil and gas. China needs oil and gas, hence, China’s aggression.

Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea largely due to Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s airhead statements that the Korean Peninsula lay outside the “defense perimeter” of the U.S. Similarly China viewed our bumbling in the South China Sea as a sign that we would not interfere in China’s sphere of influence.

“addressed U.S. businessmen in Beijing and said he was “very direct” with Xi”

Joe Biden could not be direct with a toaster and is the Democrat’s answer to Dan Quayle. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton are all vying for the title of most incompetent president.

“Longer term, conflict in the East China Sea remains the greatest potential danger to the international order and the global economy.”

Try, “Conflict in the South China Sea and East China Sea remains the greatest potential danger to the international order and the global economy, possibly sooner than most people expect.”

Posted by baroque-quest | Report as abusive

=) as I read this I had to keep in mind China’s Lunar Activities and just how much everyone thinks they have to lose and gain by asserting authority over areas of arbitrary boundaries.

Posted by NIkiV | Report as abusive

We are spread out too far, too thin. It may have worked if we didn’t have as many domestic issues after two unfinished wars and a stubbornly slow recovery after the Great Recession. But what concerns me the most is Trojan Horses like BYD in California…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

China now relies as heavily as the United States on foreign oil and natural resources.

Yet they contribute nothing to the police efforts around the world. We need to withdraw and let China become embroiled in these tribal civil wars for a few decades. So far, we have been insulating China from the realities of foreign investment. Time for China to pay its due.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Why is this issue any different than the lies China perpetuates when it insists that Tibet, Mongolia and the Altai regions of Xinjiang are all historic Han provinces?

Every few [hundred] years, some emperor or Communist Party hack decides it’s time to pursue expansionist policies. Smack them down now,or regret it later.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Having been a follower of Mr. Bremmer’s many works, this article is a bit disappointing due to lack of depth and original ideas. Still a nice summery of the current events, just not Bremmer-grade.

A lot of people would have their own opinion on these topics but to dig deeper one has to inspect the 1978 normalization of China-Japan relation. The agreement between Kakuei Tanaka’s and Chou En-lai was to shelf the issues around islands for 100 years and develop economy under the dominant figure of USA. As a condition, China did not respond to Japan’s establishment of AIDZ in this region. With the nationalization of the islands, the “status quo”, or the “shelfing” agreement is no longer agreed upon, there is nothing stopping China make her claim to counter Japan’s claims, both are at the same level of legitimacy.

USA is smart enough not to waste her energy here. As a result, the real issue today is when and how USA would allow a re-militarized Japan. It will be a rocky road between US and Japan, especially the trade with China is exceeding half a trillion dollars per year now.

Posted by BobYY | Report as abusive

It does seem that it is not the beginning of China’s efforts to shape relations around its borders for economic gains, political influence and military security – over 2000 years, depending somewhat on the internal strength and interests of the dynasty.
But neighbor states such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India and Russia are also quite powerful and have their own strengths and interests in littoral seas, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Central Asia, Mongolia, North Korea, …
so some competition and conflict may continue.
Whereas the USA has a more indirect interest, and following a stance of Cold War and encirclement against China would just force others to join with China as the lesser evil; and in some areas China and the USA have mutual interests – against militant Islam, for global trade, etc.
So there are merits to the USA being rather shifty and ambiguous and evasive and deal (as in sales or betting) with specific situations. But some Americans only have the IQ and education to follow Fox formulas from MIC lobbyists.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

it’s all about resources – mostly oil and gas. this zone was a non-issue until they all realized the sea floor might be holding petrochemicals. then watch out! just another chapter in the never-ending Resource Wars now wracking the planet.

Posted by Pecon | Report as abusive

This is shallow journalism projecting our domination thinking on China. Do we expect China to ignore it when Japan is playing fire at her doorstep? Try to see it from the eyes of a Japanese, former editor of Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo: http://www.globalresearch.ca/us-japanese -militarism-and-chinas-air-defense-ident ification-zone-adiz-over-disputed-islets -pretext-for-another-pacific-war/5360593

Posted by wpgger | Report as abusive

Basically China is antagonizing all its neighbors and is making clear plans to seize territory by some sort of bureaucratic fiat which can do nothing but harden its neighbors in consensus against it. With all neighbors plus the U.S. against China, China will soon find itself with no options but outright military assault, which invites the total annihilation of its navy by the world’s two largest naval powers the U.S. and Japan. Essentially, the U.S. will ignore the air defense zone making the Chinese believe they can pull off more of these provocations. Unfortunately, what this will lead to are most likely sanctions, or other forms of isolation for China. As usual, China is being ham-fisted, overly aggressive and precipitate.

Posted by StephanLarose | Report as abusive

Obama proved to every around the world that he is a coward, thats what made china aggressive and bold, they saw him walking away from allies in eastern europe such as poland, then syria redlines, then with iran….it is now or never with weakest american president ever, time for China and Russia to be more aggressive and take over what the US think its their sphere of influence.

Posted by Noproxy | Report as abusive

Great comments! This is why I like Reuters.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

On the contrary tmc, I’m appalled by the level of some partisan nitwits like dd606 or Noproxy. But re: your 1st post: Try to keep up.
Whatsgoingon, UauS, Alkalinestate and StephanLarose: interesting. Agree w/Jim1648, Bremmer frequently seems a shill. Barque-quest – Bumbling??
BobYY – Thank you. I stand corrected. Need to know. Nerochuck – How right you are. Noproxy – Go home.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive