Tactically, China’s recent moves vis-a-vis Japan are brilliant. Strategically, Beijing has lost more.
For roughly a decade, the Chinese government has spared no effort in trying to convince the rest of the world that China’s rise will be peaceful. Realists steeped in the history of great power competition have always been sceptical about Beijing’s pledges of pursuing what it calls “peaceful development”. Yet, liberal-minded analysts are willing to give China the benefit of the doubt. They believe that, given the right incentives, such as the economic benefits of globalisation, China will behave responsibly and become a stakeholder in the existing international order.
This debate remained inconclusive until about three years ago. Partisans on both sides could marshal sufficient evidence to buttress their arguments. However, as Chinese foreign policy began to grow more assertive, particularly on territorial disputes, realists who insisted that China would behave like a traditional great power gained greater credibility.
With the most recent escalation of tensions between China and Japan over the ownership of a group of small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, there is little doubt that advocates of China’s peaceful rise are losing the debate. What makes the latest round of escalations special is the way Beijing chose to challenge Japan’s sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands, as Japan calls them (they are called the Diaoyu in China). To be sure, this particular dispute began in 1972, when the United States handed over administrative authority (but not legal ownership) to Japan. For four decades, China and Japan had adhered to a tacit agreement over the status of the islands: Japan would retain administrative control and claim sovereignty, and China would contest the sovereignty but not challenge Japan’s administrative control.
This understanding broke down in late 2012 when Tokyo was forced to “nationalise” the islands in order to prevent an extremist right-wing leader from purchasing some of the islands from their private owners, a development the Japanese government thought would lead to a confrontation with Beijing. Little did Tokyo realise that Beijing would regard its move, however well-intentioned, as a step tantamount to formally establishing sovereignty claims over the islands.
As part of its response, Beijing has gradually escalated. After repeatedly sending ships and planes into the territorial waters and airspace of the islands to challenge Japanese claims of exclusive administrative control, the Chinese government took the fateful step, on November 23, of announcing its East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Even though sovereign nations are not prohibited by international law to set up ADIZs, and more than a dozen countries have done so (including Japan and the US), China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea overlaps with those of Japan and South Korea. Most alarmingly, it also covers the airspace over the disputed islands.
Beijing’s intentions are crystal clear. By setting up an overlapping ADIZ over the disputed islands, it has mounted a legal challenge to Tokyo’s claims of administrative control. Under the rules announced by Beijing, all aircraft flying through China’s ADIZ must communicate their flight plans and identify themselves to the Chinese military, which will enforce the ADIZ. Obviously, Beijing views compliance with these rules as recognition of China’s legal control over the airspace over the islands and, by implication, the islands themselves.
Beijing’s escalation has infuriated Tokyo, which promptly announced that it would not recognise China’s ADIZ, and instructed its civilian airlines not to comply with China’s rules. Japan also openly challenged China by sending military aircraft through China’s ADIZ without notifying the Chinese military (South Korea has also dispatched military jets into the Chinese ADIZ).
Caught in the middle is the US, a treaty ally of Japan. Eager to show solidarity with Japan but reluctant to allow the dispute to escalate further, Washington has opted for a middle course. It has flatly rejected China’s new ADIZ and sent two unarmed B-52s through the Chinese ADIZ almost immediately after Beijing’s announcement. However, to avoid potential catastrophic accidents in the zone, the US government has also “advised” its civilian airlines to comply with the Chinese ADIZ.
By pure coincidence, the ADIZ controversy occurred right before US Vice President Joseph Biden’s scheduled visit to Japan, China and South Korea. Judging by the announcements following Biden’s stops in Tokyo and Beijing, it seems that he has achieved only modest accomplishments in trying to calm the troubled waters in the East China Sea. While he managed to reassure Japan of America’s unwavering support and criticised China’s escalation, he treaded carefully in Beijing and avoided directly challenging China’s decision by asking top Chinese leaders to rescind its ADIZ.
All this leaves the troubling impression that China has got away with a tactical move that changed the status quo over a longstanding dispute. Observers are worried about three consequences.
First, Beijing’s attempts to enforce the ADIZ in future could result in accidental military clashes with Japanese and US military aircraft in the zone, thus starting a conflict no one really wants. Similar attempts could also lead to aviation disasters similar to the infamous KAL 007 incident (when a Soviet MiG shot down a South Korean jumbo jet in 1983).
Second, encouraged by this precedent, China could set up a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea, using the same tactic to assert its maritime claims. Third, emboldened by the lack of a unified response from the international community to its unilateral move, China might be tempted to flex its muscles even more recklessly in future.
Of course, these are all valid concerns. But they overlook one important aspect of the Chinese ADIZ controversy. The ultimate question to ask is whether China gains or loses more in this case.
Tactically, we must concede that Beijing’s move is brilliant: it is controversial, but not illegal. Its new ADIZ should help China achieve its objective of contesting Japan’s sovereignty claims through clever legal manoeuvres. But strategically, we would find it hard to deny that Beijing has lost more. It has not only succeeded in demolishing any lingering hope that China’s rise could be peaceful, but also pushed Asian nations, bound by their fear of an assertive China, closer to each other and to America. If Chinese leaders are truly farsighted, one has to wonder whether this is their desired outcome.
The writer is professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.