December 05, 2013
U.S.-China friction in Western Pacific may be here to stay
Journalist Phillip Ewing
Get used to the tensions in the Western Pacific. They may become the new normal.
Territorial disputes among China, its neighbors and the U.S. are destined to be commonplace, international analysts say, as Chinese leaders continue a concerted push to extend their dominance of the Western Pacific.
Beijing’s East China Sea “air defense identification zone,” which mandates that foreign aircraft volunteer information about themselves if they want to pass through, is only the beginning.
“This is going to continue on the water and over the water,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia scholar with the Center for a New American Security. “Will there be more identification zones? Yes. Will the Chinese even consider a phase of challenging administrative control on the land? The answer, to some extent, is that’s a real possibility. That’s a real fear.”
Only there isn’t much land to speak of in the disputed area — the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands that China and Japan both claim are essentially rocks — but China’s leaders likely feel they could still bring them inside their sphere of influence, perhaps with drone overflights. Meanwhile, Japan might consider sending troops to stand on the rocks.
And Washington, which has said it considers the islands part of Japan and covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty, would be caught in the middle.
Vice President Joe Biden, on a weeklong Asian swing, told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday that the U.S. would stick by Japan. He also said China’s new air defense zone increased the risk of “miscalculation” and that it was essential for Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul to lower the tensions in the neighborhood.
“Mr. Prime Minister, if you’ll forgive a personal reference, my father had an expression,” Biden said. “He said, ‘The only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended.’ The prospect for a miscalculation mistake is too high.”
Biden said he would take the same message to Chinese leaders on the Beijing leg of his trip. But Cronin said the White House and American leaders generally should not expect China to defer its ambitions in the Western Pacific.
“The Chinese leadership is trying to do this balancing act. It’s not about starting a war, but using tailored coercion to effectively gain ground over the weakest links in the neighborhood,” he said. “In this case, the weakest links are the Philippines and Japan. China believes it can better isolate those countries and take out their increasing claims in the region.”
American defense advocates warn that Washington is all but inviting or enabling Chinese expansion. Sequestration has reduced military readiness and created a perception of weakness, they argue, and the White House also has made specific decisions that would only encourage Beijing’s behavior.
For example, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel and a leader of the House China Caucus, has faulted President Barack Obama for not inviting Taiwan to next year’s scheduled Rim of the Pacific naval exercises. Washington has invited the People’s Liberation Army-Navy to send warships, and Forbes said that by excluding Taiwan the U.S. was effectively spurning its alliance.
Forbes also sent a letter Tuesday to National Security Adviser Susan Rice in which he accused the administration of sending mixed messages to the Chinese — directing the Pentagon to ignore the air defense restrictions on the one hand, while advising civilian airlines to comply on the other.
“Given the potential for miscalculation in the current environment, it is essential that the administration speak with one voice on an issue directly affecting the future of American security interests in the Asia-Pacific,” Forbes wrote. “Therefore, I respectfully request that you reassess the U.S. government’s official policy regarding commercial airline compliance with China’s imposition of an ADIZ.”
Cronin said he thinks the Chinese were not motivated primarily by the perceived weakness of the U.S. military as sequestration squeezes the Pentagon budget and military leaders complain about reduced readiness — though Beijing does track every turn of the screw in Washington.
The biggest reason is China’s internal politics, Cronin said. President Xi Jinping, who’s set to meet with Biden, came to power believing his predecessor, Hu Jintao, underplayed a strong strategic hand in the Western Pacific. So Xi and his camp want to be “stronger men,” Cronin said, and extend China’s control over the East and South China seas.
That, they believe, will sell ordinary Chinese on the value of the establishment Communist Party, which badly wants to stay in power, and safeguard China’s access to the trade routes and potential natural resources under the ocean. Beijing probably does not want to get into a shooting war in the process, but rather, wants to reach a point in perhaps five or 10 years when no one, including the U.S., will dispute its claims of control over the neighborhood.
In short, for defense and international analysts who have spent years predicting a muscular 21st-century China, the future has arrived. The next big question is how American leaders respond.
Foreign policy scholar Marvin Kalb of the Brookings Institution wondered whether Obama’s new preference for handling foreign crises would work in the context of the Western Pacific.
“President Obama clearly wants to accent diplomacy and lean no longer on military action, which seemed to be American policy in the last decade,” Kalb wrote. “That seems to be the message of his recent decisions with respect to Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. But, China casts a huge shadow over his strategic deliberations, raising questions about whether his preference for diplomacy can work in Asia, specifically in the East China Sea.”
A U.S. official traveling with Biden told reporters that, for now, Washington believes the best course is to talk frankly with Beijing, according to the pool report.
“The aim is being clear and consistent with China and Chinese leaders about our alliance [with Japan and South Korea], the strength of our alliances and commitments, regarding behavior that is destabilizing,” the official said. “We’ve constantly said relations with China are a balance of cooperation and competition. We need to grow the cooperative elements, but it’s important that when we have disagreements with the Chinese to be clear about them and help them understand there will be a cost to their actions.”
The Pentagon, so far, is making a point to carry out its operations. U.S. Navy and Air Force flights have continued as normal through the air defense zone, officials say, and American commanders plan to conduct business as usual.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters he isn’t even paying attention to operations in the disputed territory because from the Defense Department’s perspective, nothing has changed. Warren said he wouldn’t get into a daily drumbeat about when or which American military aircraft were in the area. One reason is that U.S. surveillance flights of China are classified and from the Pentagon’s perspective, nothing has changed.
“Don’t expect details of flights,” he said.