China Showing More Resolve Than Obama

The ADIZ is a firm, deliberate step by Xi and Beijing.

It is unlikely that China’s move to establish an Air Defence Information Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands was a mistake. None of the responses we’ve seen so far could have been a surprise. If it wasn’t a mistake, then it was a statement from Beijing; ‘we are confident enough to raise the stakes.’ Whether in the long term the move is a net benefit to Beijing’s interests or not, that statement is important for Washington.

Last week it looked like we might be able to run with the most comforting interpretation: this was all an error by the Chinese. They’ve miscalculated, and now they’ll step back. After all, Hagel came out strongly for Japan, the USAF flew B-52s through the new ADIZ without a peep from the Chinese, and the South Koreans and Japanese have flouted the new zone as well. Beijing responded to the B-52s by saying “We will make corresponding responses according to different situations and how big the threat is”.

But since then, Beijing has started flying its own patrols, has reportedly scrambled jets to monitor US and Japanese planes in the ADIZ, and we have learned that apparently the idea for the zone had Xi Jinping’s personal approval, and has had his attention for some time. It would also mean we’d have to assume that Beijing has been surprised by a series of predictable responses.

Of course the best case for China would have been a statement along the lines of the recent US approach—emphasizing that it takes no sides in the territorial dispute itself, and urging restraint. But a clear statement of support from Secretary Hagel (or even President Obama) was well within the realm of possibility. Indeed, an optimistic explanation for the ADIZ stunt is that it was an attempt by Beijing to find out where Washington really stood.

The (unarmed) USAF B-52s flying through the new zone will also have been a stronger response than Beijing hoped. Japanese fighters would have been better, and nonmilitary aircraft better still. But Tokyo and Washington had to respond along these lines or be seen as making a huge concession to China, and that will have been clear to Beijing.

Believing that the declaration of the new ADIZ was an error of judgment (at this stage, who knows how it will pan out in the future) means we assume that Beijing either failed to take these highly likely responses into account, didn’t think of them, or just didn’t think the whole move through at all. It’s not totally impossible; sometimes even the best governments misstep (think the red line on Syria).

But in making policy to deal with the escalating rivalry in North East Asia, it would be risky to assume that the usually competent and methodical Chinese government simply messed up a major foreign policy move.

That’s because the consequences for Washington in overestimating Beijing’s resolve in Asia are mainly in the form of opportunity costs. If resources are devoted to a response that assumes China is determined and capable, they can’t be spent elsewhere. But an error in the form of underestimating Beijing would risk the United States underestimating the risks of escalating rivalry in North East Asia, or failing to devote the attention and resources necessary to plan and execute the effective pursuit of American interests in the region.

If the ADIZ declaration wasn’t a mistake, then it was a statement by Beijing of its resolve, and its tolerance for risk (and potentially even cost) when it comes to dealing with what it deems core interests.

The temptation here is to take solace in the counterargument: China should know that the United States is by far the strongest military power in the world—if push comes to shove Beijing will back down, and deep down Beijing knows this. If they didn’t, then America would win.

The problem is that relative military strength in the abstract isn’t the right measure here. If things really get out of hand, the question will be who is prepared to accept the costs and risks involved in securing the islands. China has two great advantages here.

The first is that the islands matter more to China. They are only 340km from the Chinese mainland (and very close to Taiwan). China claims them as sovereign territory, just as Japan does, and there is no more important national issue for Beijing than territorial integrity.