The National Interest’s Managing Editor, Harry J. Kazianis, spoke with Ian Bremmer, a contributing editor for TNI and president of the Eurasia Group. Bremmer is author of TNI’s recent cover story, China: Superpower or Superbust?
HK: China's recently declared ADIZ over a large section of the East China Sea has certainly rattled nerves in Northeast Asia and in the wider Indo-Pacific region. The timing of such a move, right around when the P5+1 and Iran were finalizing their deal, seems rather interesting. Would you say the announcement was planned right for the moment of a possible deal to lessen the impact? If so, was the move effective?
IB: It’s important to remember that this was a plan Beijing had been developing ever since last summer (if not before), when Japan’s then prime minister Noda purchased more of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, altering the longstanding status quo from Beijing’s perspective. The timing for a response was completely in China’s court. And what constituted an opportune moment? Beijing wanted to maximize the chances of getting this done with limited pushback from the US (pushback from Japan was always guaranteed regardless of the timing). With that as the goal, it was good timing. As you mention, the Iran nuclear deal was underway, for which the Chinese foreign minister was supporting John Kerry in Geneva. But that was just one of a handful of factors. Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China, had just surprisingly announced his resignation with no planned successor. On top of that, between record low approval ratings and a full plate of domestic concerns, Obama’s commitment to foreign affairs was an open question. The government shutdown forced Obama to cancel his trip to Asia for the APEC summit—and a conciliation tour had just been scheduled for April. If ever there was a time to proceed, this was it.
HK: The United States has given guidance to domestic airlines to adhere to the ADIZ and give Beijing their flight information. Do you think this is a mistake or a prudent move considering safety concerns?
IB: It’s certainly a mistake from Japanese prime minister Abe's perspective, where the government gave its airlines no such order. This is much more important to him than to the White House, which is juggling different priorities. Something similar also played out in terms of the White House’s unwillingness to call for a "rollback" of the zone, which Japan explicitly did (the US rejected the ADIZ’s legitimacy, but didn’t go so far as to demand that China retreat). The United States has consistently said there's no light between the American and Japanese positions here. But that's simply an artful (or, to be blunt, a less than true) way of describing the dynamic.
In many ways, that is actually similar to the situation between the US and Israel with regard to their views on Iran, and the analogy is useful to flesh out. Israel remains without question America's most important ally in the Middle East and that is not going to change, but its concerns about Iran are radically greater than Washington’s. However, the United States views Israel as having no other real options on Iran than following its diplomatic lead—no matter what the Israeli government may say publicly—and so has provided extended diplomatic engagement but little willingness to compromise on policy. Accordingly, as the US and Iran have gotten more involved diplomatically, Israel's concerns (and the stresses in the US-Israel relationship) have become more publicly apparent. On all of these fronts, we can draw clear parallels in the present US-Japan relationship. But there is one major, overwhelming difference. The United States’ overall interests in the Middle East and Iran are diminishing over time (while Israel’s concern with Iran continues to grow). The United States’ interests in Asia, however, will only continue to grow, as will the threat that China represents. Thus, longer term, US policy is likely to move more in Japan's direction.
This longer term trend only makes China keener to capitalize on a perceived window of opportunity where they can drive a wedge between the United States and Japan. They’ve had some limited success on this, as I’ve described above. This is precisely why China’s foreign ministry limited its rebukes to the US’s response to the ADIZ, while being vocal and acutely critical of Japan’s.
HK: There has been some speculation based on recent Chinese statements that another ADIZ could be coming—this time in the South China Sea. How likely do you think such a move is and what effect would this have on the region?
IB: While it looks reasonably likely, it’s a lot more dangerous for the Chinese because it has the potential to push the countries with a stake in the South China Sea into a more coordinated, multilateral alliance against them. Thus, the East China Sea was “lower hanging fruit,” and it was a higher priority for Beijing: Japan is the threat of actual size, with the strongest relationship with the United States. While China’s plans may be hard to discern, its tactics are quite clear: China will try to limit multilateral engagement, instead opting for one-on-one negotiations with carrots and sticks, dialing pressure up or down in proportion to its influence over the country in question.