While David Cameron was in Beijing pleading for Chinese investment in our high-speed rail, China’s jets were streaking above the disputed waters of Asia alongside American and Japanese warplanes. It is difficult not to be struck by the dissonance between the Prime Minister’s eager, occasionally fawning, trade and investment spree, and the brewing crisis in the crowded skies of the East China Sea. In this, we face a dilemma that will define the coming years: how do we deter China without demonising it.
On November 23, China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (AIDZ) covering most of the East China Sea, which lies between South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Such zones, in which aircraft must identify themselves, are not unusual. The US and Japan both have them. But China’s is slightly different. First, it covers the airspace above the Japanese-controlled but Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands. Second, it applies to aircraft that are only transiting the zone without entering Chinese airspace. Third, it is backed up by an unusually strong threat of force.
The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, this week dismissed the UK as “an old European country apt for travel and study”. The sneering arrogance underlying that judgment is symptomatic of Beijing’s belief that the global balance of power has shifted in its favour in the six years since the global financial crisis. In that context, the introduction of this zone fits into a pattern of Chinese pressure over the past few years, intended to intimidate neighbours into swallowing its territorial claims. This is most evident in China’s increasingly aggressive naval patrols around disputed territories in the South China Sea.
The US and its allies, Japan and South Korea, have dealt with the latest Chinese gambit in a robust and proper fashion: sending their aircraft squarely through the zone without informing Beijing, and insisting that it should resolve these disputes through negotiation. But China cannot rescind the zone, nor Japan accept it as a fait accompli, without each provoking outrage from nationalist constituencies at home. Already, Washington has irked Tokyo by instructing its civilian airliners to comply with China’s rules. It is understandable that the US has no wish to risk a downed passenger jet, but it should have requested compliance only for those aircraft bound for China. Beijing cannot be allowed to think that it can gain advantage in disputes by reckless, unilateral measures.
However, it is also important to understand that Beijing has no monopoly on recklessness and unilateralism. China’s leaders have fostered fervent anti-Japanese nationalism at home. But they have been helped greatly by the aggressive rhetoric of Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has sought to dilute constitutional limits on Japan’s military and, contemptibly, played down Japan’s wartime atrocities against its neighbours. Last year, Tokyo escalated the dispute by nationalising three of the Senkaku islands.
The US doesn’t take a view on the islands’ sovereignty, but acknowledges they are under Japanese control and therefore covered by US security guarantees. This means that Japanese actions have important consequences for the US. It is fashionable to deride the Obama administration as abandoning its friends, but the principle that Washington ought to swallow anything its allies do is preposterous. This is the surest route to encouraging Japanese rashness and getting dragged into a needless war. Striking a balance between deterring China and restraining Japan is exceptionally difficult, but it is the only way to avoid tensions spiralling out of control.
In the short term, the US ought to continue patrolling China’s ADIZ. But over the longer term, the risks of such a strategy are obvious. In 2001, a US surveillance aircraft was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island after colliding in mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet, whose pilot was killed. That episode was defused with a carefully written American apology, but 12 years on the mood is more defiant on all sides. Even if China fails to enforce the zone, its very existence is likely to prompt intensified Japanese patrols over the Senkaku islands. If China feels forced into a response, the likelihood of a clash rises. It is impossible to imagine Japan or China saying sorry to either in the heat of a crisis, and the result would be unwanted escalation.
Beijing is unlikely to redraw its ADIZ, but one face-saving solution might be for the US to suggest that China clarify and relax the rules of its zone, as a prelude to negotiating a broader regional framework. This would also be a good time to ask those countries with tougher rules on ADIZs – such as Taiwan – to do likewise. That way, China would not feel that it was being asked to accept an unequal status, and the issue could be separated from the more sensitive maritime disputes. At the same time, China will come to see the damage that is being done to its regional standing. Over the past years, its neighbours have flocked towards the US. Even those relationships that Beijing has nurtured in recent years, such as with South Korea, are fraying. China is not solely to blame in regional disputes. Elites across the region are fuelling nationalism and behaving myopically. But China’s sheer size and opacity mean that it must bear particular responsibility when throwing its weight into the disturbed waters around it.
Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.