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After its initial, surprisingly strong reaction to China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) last month, the Obama administration seems to have remembered that showing backbone isn’t really its style. Beijing’s announcement was quickly met with strongly worded statements from secretaries Kerry and Hagel and the dispatch of B-52 bombers into the new Chinese ADIZ.
But the President and his team so fear a downturn in relations with Beijing that they prefer to cede to China tactical victories rather than mount full-throated and robust defenses of U.S. interests.
The first crack in American resolve appeared two weeks ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instructed U.S. airlines to abide by China’s illegitimate rules, thus showing the first whisper of daylight between Washington and its Japanese and South Korean allies. This turned out to be but the first step in a rapid retreat from confrontation with Beijing.
Early last week, Joe Biden jetted off to Asia, where he refused to echo White House calls for the ADIZ’s dissolution. Biden instead called for “crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication,” as if the lack of tools to manage the crisis was somehow a bigger problem than China’s decision to cause one in the first place.
But it gets worse. At the Pentagon last Wednesday, Chuck Hagel stated that the U.S. position is “not that the ADIZ itself is new or unique.” General Martin Dempsey, at the same press conference, went further, claiming that “it wasn’t the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing.”
And just a few hours earlier, in private discussions with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, it seems that the vice president all but gave his blessing for the ADIZ. According to the Wall Street Journal, “a focus of Mr. Biden in those meetings was to define the ‘rules of engagement’ between China and other nations in the region to prevent a calamity.” The vice president was apparently happy to come away with “an understanding that the zone won’t be policed in ways that threaten the region or endanger the lives of pilots and passengers.”
Let’s be clear about the results of the vice president’s intrepid diplomacy. On the one hand, he did receive some vague assurances about the way in which China will enforce its ADIZ rules (side note: Beijing has a poor record of sticking to such promises). On the other hand, China has issued no revisions to its official rules for the ADIZ. And China’s ADIZ still extends over the disputed Senkaku islands, which Tokyo administers and which the United States is legally bound to defend. This is a clear win for China—and one that comes at the expense of U.S. and allied interests. This administration’s wishful thinking to the contrary, geopolitics can still be a zero-sum game.
The White House, of course, may continue to insist that it does not accept China’s ADIZ. But in all the ways that really matter, the president has already accepted it and appears eager to move on.
Perhaps that’s why administration officials have progressed from blaming China for raising tensions to implying that culpability somehow lies equally with Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. In a speech at Yonsei University in South Korea on Friday, Vice President Biden asserted that “there are practical steps countries can take and should take to lower the temperature, to reduce the risk of conflict…” Note the plural.
Hagel was more direct: “it’s important for China, Japan, South Korea, all the nations in this area to stay calm and responsible.” Incidentally, this is exactly the sort of statement China likes to issue when North Korea tests long-range missiles or detonates a nuclear weapon.
Consider a baseball analogy: China has thrown a pitch at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s head. But instead of ejecting the pitcher, the home plate umpire has issued warnings to both dugouts. Unfortunately, geopolitics is not a baseball game, and treating it like one makes for bad policy.
Washington may have made nice with Beijing for the time being, but its ham-fisted handling of this latest crisis has just made conflict in the region more likely. Japan and South Korea are feeling less secure. China feels emboldened. The United States appears weak, or at least uninterested. That’s not a recipe for peace in Asia.
Michael Mazza is a Research Fellow at The American Enterprise Institute.
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