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.