Last month as the world awaited news of tense negotiations between Iran and the so-called “P5+1” (the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France, plus Germany) over Tehran’s growing nuclear program, a rising giant with an already sizable nuclear arsenal made its own headlines. The news once again proved why Asia and not the Middle East is the world’s most dangerous corner of the world and a place where America can ill afford a show of weakness or indecision.
With the People’s Republic of China’s unilateral creation of what has been called an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large section of the East China Sea that overlaps contested territory claimed by Japan, Beijing has sown the seeds of what could quickly become a full-blown military crisis with clear ramifications for the United States.
To be fair, an Air Defense Identification Zone, essentially an area that carves out an early-warning buffer zone supporting the detection of intrusions into a nation’s sovereign airspace, is not aggressive on its own. Many nations, including the United States, Canada and Japan, have created such defensive areas. What is aggressive is declaring such a zone over the contested Senkaku Islands claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing. Thanks to a deadly brew of budding nationalism on the Chinese mainland, the discovery of valuable national resources and a historic rivalry with Japan that stretches back over a century, China has set its sights on laying the groundwork for what Beijing officials have called “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands.
In fact, Beijing’s recent move is part of a carefully crafted plan to control the seas and now the skies around the Senkakus. For the past year, Beijing has played a calculated game of chicken with Japan over the group of five uninhabited islands that have been under Japanese administration since the 1970s. When Tokyo formally purchased three of the islands from private Japanese owners last summer, Beijing used the incident to aggressively press its claims. China has dispatched nonnaval maritime vessels, surveillance planes, unmanned aerial vehicles and elements of its increasingly advanced air force to patrol the area around the islands. Tokyo has responded by deploying its own forces and reportedly threatened to shoot down any foreign unmanned aircraft within its airspace. The situation almost spiraled out of control at least once, when in January, a Chinese naval vessel locked its firing radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter. Chinese academics even went as far in May as to make an argument that Okinawa, where a sizable amount of U.S. forces are based, should also be contested.
Chinese aspirations don’t stop with just the declaration of this new Air Defense Identification Zone, however, or in the East China Sea, either. Indeed, such a move is just the latest in a series of provocative acts Beijing has committed in the wider Asia-Pacific that go back several years. In the South China Sea, China has been locked in a deadly competition with the Philippines over a disputed area known as Scarborough Shoal, an area rich in fishing stocks but clearly within Manila’s territorial waters as recognized by international law. Beijing has effectively seized the area, just 124 nautical miles off the Philippine coast.
In fact, China is also actively contesting the control of another Philippine shoal in a race for supremacy throughout the area. Beijing has been so bold as to claim 80 percent of the South China Sea, drawing what has been described as a “nine-dash line” around an area where trillions of dollars of commerce traverse every year and placing it in direct conflict with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. With China declaring it could also create additional Air Defense Identification Zones in the near future, the next logical location for such a move would be in the South China Sea. Beijing’s recent deployment of an aircraft carrier to the region could be the first step toward such a move. The danger for the United States is clear: A shooting war between China and Japan in the skies over East Asia or between Beijing and its neighbors in the South China Sea would be a disaster of global proportions — maybe even a Third World War. However, China’s recent actions can only have one intention: to change the status quo in its own favor.
For Washington, there are a number of options to ensure that Beijing understands we will support our allies and ensure the peace and prosperity of the wider Asia-Pacific. China may need to be reminded that the status quo — a peaceful neighborhood where Beijing has risen economically and militarily — is no guarantee if it continues along such a dangerous path. Washington should announce that increased arms sales to Taiwan, such as the stealthy F-35 or even submarines, and increased defense collaboration with Japan and South Korea could be under consideration as a response to Chinese acts. If Beijing does declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, Washington must strongly consider increasing the amount of forward-deployed forces to the region, such as missile-defense batteries and nuclear attack submarines. Such strong signals will not only indicate American resolve in the face of Chinese aggression, but demonstrate to our allies we are committed to their defense.
Clearly, the stakes in Asia could not be any higher. History will not forgive President Obama if he chooses to lead from behind in Asia.
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor for the National Interest and a non-resident fellow of the Center of Strategic and International Studies.