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Unfortunately for Vice President Joe Biden, Chinese decision-making is a mystery that often works to its advantage. Consider this: the week before Biden left for Japan, South Korea, and China, Beijing announced an illegitimate and provocative Air Defense Identification Zone.
The timing and brazenness of the action raised questions in Washington about who is really calling the shots in China, and about President Xi Jinping’s policy inclinations. Creating such doubt can serve China’s strategic purposes. Beijing ensured that the Biden trip would be focused on China’s claims in the East China Sea, rather than on Washington’s agenda of getting more support from China on denuclearizing North Korea, pushing Chinese economic reform, and other issues China would rather not discuss.
Beijing’s moves put Japan and the United States on the defensive and engendered concern about internal politics in China. This provides Beijing with leverage. The more Washington worries that there is an out control aggressive faction in China, the more Xi can argue for more “understanding” of how “sensitive” the Japan issue is in Chinese domestic politics and how the U.S. would “only strengthen the hardliners” if it reacts too strongly. That argument is itself brazen, as China’s propaganda machine is responsible for teaching the Chinese people that pacifist, democratic Japan is still Imperial Japan.
What’s the story’s plot? After a year of stepping up its military pressure in and around the Senkaku islands to undermine the Japanese claim of administrative control, China made this next move. It announced an ADIZ that not only overlapped with those of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it also covered airspace the disputed Senkakus and disputed territory with South Korea. It is common for countries to use ADIZs to protect their national airspace from intrusions of unwanted aircraft. And there would have been no problem had China issued an ADIZ that did not overlap with others’ or cover disputed territory. But China faced no threat to its airspace. The purpose of the ADIZ was to advance disputed territorial claims and to further its strategy of breaking out into the Pacific Ocean.
To be clear, China has no standing in state practice to claim an ADIZ over disputed territory. Its case in the East China Sea is even weaker, given the U.S. position that Japan has administrative control over the islands and that they are afforded the full protection of the US-Japan defense treaty. The U.S. position comes pretty close to recognizing Japanese sovereignty over the islands, its position until the sloppy process of normalization with China. But Beijing should not want to push the U.S. to revisit it.
If the ADIZ claim was not about protecting Chinese airspace, what was it about? Two things. First, to further undermine Japanese territorial claims in the East China Sea. That would be in keeping with China’s approach to the South China Sea, where it has published maps implying complete Chinese control over those disputed waters. Second, to provide diplomatic cover to its military strategy of breaking out into the Pacific. China faces a heavy lift in achieving unfettered access to the Pacific. Geostrategy favors the U.S. and Japan, two powerful navies that control the transit points into the Pacific. But if China establishes the equivalent of military and diplomatic “no go” zones for Japanese and US forces in the East China Sea, the passage to the Pacific opens up. That is not in U.S. interests.
China’s broad legal claims and diplomacy buttress the impressive military arsenal it has to implement its strategy. Its “anti access” capabilities that include submarines, ballistic and cruise missiles, cyber and electronic-warfare assets, are meant to keep U.S. forces at bay. Once that is accomplished China can coerce its neighbors into accepting its expansive claims. It is no accident that just as Beijing announced its ADIZ, it also sent its new aircraft carrier into the South China Sea for an important sea trial. China has established a pattern: build and exercise coercive military power, make expansive territorial claims, find quasi-legal justifications for those claims. The status-quo salami is quickly being sliced.
Now back to the timing. The vice president is forced to both lower the temperature and protect Japanese and US interests. The task is almost impossible as China takes advantage of anything that looks like a US-Japanese rift, such as the Federal Aviation Administration’s ruling that civilian aircraft should abide by China’s new ADIZ requirements. While this is not the right call, it is a defensible U.S. step that Chinese public diplomacy will manipulate as a win for Chinese toughness.
And, rather than pushing the President’s own China agenda, Xi has dominated the terms of debate. Xi also intended to demonstrate to US friends, from Japan to the Philippines that it will take coercive actions even as top US leaders come to the region. This is not the first time Beijing is embarrassing Washington in this way; Xi’s predecessor tested a new stealthy aircraft while then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was visiting China.
The White House should note that while China has taken the initiative and displayed its prowess, other facts bode less well for China. Here are a few:
First, domestic insecurity is growing. In the lead-up to the latest kerfuffle, President Xi made a power grab, centralizing control over domestic and international security policy. This is partly an answer to a spate of recent dramatic attacks in Chinese cities. The CCP claims terror, but they may be acts of an angry and violent populace fed up with CCP itself.
Second, Xi may be facing a series of economic crises. The much anticipated “reformist” third party plenum was viewed by international markets as a big belly flop.
Third, China has no answer to its demographic disaster. China tweaked its one-child policy, but it is too little too late. There is no getting around the fact that China is growing very old very quickly, which will be very expensive. Whether or not China can afford its expansive strategy over the long-term is very much in doubt.
Finally, China is growing ever more dependent on the import of food, crops, energy and other commodities. Much of that trade goes straight through the East China Sea to ports in Shanghai and elsewhere. China, a land power trying to be a sea power, is very vulnerable to supply disruptions. The U.S. does not have to commit an act of war to point this out. It simply needs to exercise in the East China Sea in ways that remind China of its vulnerabilities.
Washington and its allies need to undermine China’s strategy and the coercion that it requires. Subtly demonstrating China’s manifold problems and vulnerabilities may help Xi get back to the important work of solving his country’s manifold problems.
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