China Ascendant: Is Conflict Inevitable?

The ADIZ is one more reminder that China has the strength to challenge the regional order. A deep look at where this might lead.

Thucydides’ purpose in his great epic was to account for “what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes.” He acknowledged that what we know as the Peloponnesian War was produced by many different disputes and depicted them masterfully, laying bare their specificities. But, in the opening pages, he warns us that dwelling on the particulars obscures “the real reason” for carnage that ruined Hellas. “What made war inevitable,” he tells us early on in his masterpiece, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear it caused in Sparta.” He might have added, for his account makes it abundantly clear that such was the case, “and in Sparta’s closest allies as well.” Among the lessons offered by Thucydides is that we ought not to dwell on the trees and risk missing the lines of the forest—the larger trends that drive politics and war.

Thucydides’ epic has inspired many explorations of what in international-relations scholarship is referred to as “power transitions.” Not a few of these studies conclude that these mega-shifts are among the most perilous periods in the politics among nations. Why? Because the established, dominant power fears that, even if it is has not yet been surpassed and may not be anytime soon, the margin of its advantage over an ascendant rival, which it has long watched uneasily, is diminishing—and will likely continue to do so. The rising power, having lived under a political-military-cultural-institutional order that reflects the preponderance of the reigning hegemon, and that therefore protects and advances its interests, grows in confidence. Eager to demonstrate to itself and others that a new era is nigh, it begins to probe and to push so as to assay the reaction and explore the possibilities.

Shifting circumstances and the attendant uncertainty make power transitions hazardous. The leaders of the dominant power whose position is being eroded feel that they must show that their side is still supreme. That impulse arises from the need to retain legitimacy among their citizenry and to show the challenger that they still have plenty of power and resolve and should not be underestimated. The leaders of the ascendant rival, on the other hand, are no less eager to show their own people, the hegemon, and the latter’s allies, that a new arithmetic of power is emerging. One side’s fear and the other side’s hubris produce a volatile mix. The result need not be, as it was in Hellas, a catastrophic war. A shifting balance of power could instead create a more benign context, though one conducive to apprehension, limit-testing, crises, misperceptions, and strategic reassessments prompted by uncertainty and fear.

The latter denouement is worth keeping in mind when one assays the origin and significance of recent events involving the assertion of China’s power in East Asia. One of these was Beijing’s proclamation on November 23 of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extending into the East China Sea and covering islands that Japan and South Korea control but that China claims. An ADIZ is standard practice and thus hardly an illegal or belligerent act, but China’s version is more stringent than is customary. It requires aircraft passing through to file flight plans with the Chinese authorities and to be under the guidance of Chinese air-traffic controllers, even if the plane is not heading to China. Moreover, it overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ, covering the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which both China and Japan claim.

The United States, followed by Japan and South Korea, flew military aircraft through the Chinese ADIZ to demonstrate that they didn’t accept its legitimacy; but various commercial airlines (Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines and American air carriers, as per an FAA directive), in an understandable decision designed to ensure their passengers’ safety, agreed to comply with China’s stipulations. South Korea subsequently expanded its ADIZ, extending it into China’s, to underscore Seoul’s claim to (and control of) the Ieodo (Suyan Rock in Chinese parlance), which is disputed by Beijing. Yet these defiant gestures by Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul do not change the reality that has emerged, which is that China’s action, taken from a position of unprecedented confidence and capacity stands. The question is whether Beijing will follow up with an expansive ADIZ to back its claims in the South China Sea.