A lot has been written in the past week about China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including by me both on NRO and Politico. Given the Obama administration’s recent flailing on Iran and Syria (not to mention Obamacare), it was easy to assume that the distracted White House would try to sweep China’s new policy under the rug.
I’ll be the first to admit I was too pessimistic, though part of me also assumed that the Chinese challenge was such low-hanging fruit that the administration couldn’t possibly miss out on an easy chance to swat Beijing’s pretensions. Now the first inning has been played, and what follows is my geopolitical box score:
1. Chinese President Xi Jinping has struck out (remember, though, this is only his first plate appearance in this particular game).
Just a week after reports surfaced about how he had taken extraordinary power over defense and security policymaking at the latest Communist-party gathering, he has been shown to be way too overconfident at the plate. China’s ADIZ itself is not a new instrument; as has been noted, Japan has one that’s even larger (for a good article and map, see here). Xi’s attempt to carve out a sphere of predominance backfired because it was so clearly aimed at confronting Japan over the Senkaku islands, and indeed overlapped Japan’s ADIZ, in addition to South Korea’s. Beijing further riled feathers with its precipitous demands that all flights had to identify themselves, regardless of whether they were actually approaching Chinese territory, or it would engage in “emergency defensive measures.” All this made Xi and the government seem like loose cannons.
Before striking out, however, Xi may have fouled off a few balls. As of this writing, I haven’t seen any reports of exactly where the U.S. and Japanese planes flew. Did they stay only within Japan’s ADIZ, thereby showing that they would not give up long-established areas of control, or did they fly purposefully into de novo areas of China’s zone, which hitherto had been unchallenged international airspace? Maybe the U.S. and Japanese were less bold (some say confrontational) than has been reported. Suddenly giving up the right to fly unmolested through airspace that Japan has administered for over four decades would indeed have been appeasement. However, not flying into areas newly claimed by China is just as much of a waffle.
2. Washington and Asian civilian airliners have also struck out.
Within 24 hours of Beijing’s announcement of the new ADIZ and rules, civilian airlines from Singapore, Australia, South Korea, and Japan accepted the new conditions. This was a prudent move, given that the lives of their thousands of passengers are suddenly in the hands of 25-year-old Chinese fighter pilots with no record of dealing with fast-moving crises. Yet it also was a huge victory for China, giving legitimacy to its claims to have administrative control over huge swaths of the skies of Asia. Again, if reports are to be believed, Japan requests information only if undocumented flights appear to be approaching Japanese territory, and not simply flying through the airspace. China’s more intrusive demands were quickly met with resignation by most civilian airlines in Asia. Later, Japanese carriers ANA and JAL were pressured by Tokyo not to accept China’s demands, and so flew through parts of the zone without complying.
In a moment of true weakness, however, the Obama administration flailed at the ball, telling U.S. airliners to use their best judgment and do what they felt necessary to operate safely. This is a clear strikeout: The State Department should have categorically rejected Beijing’s new demands and told U.S. airliners that they would be escorted, if necessary, through the newly contested area. Instead, Washington seemed indecisive and all too ready to turn the other cheek when it came to the right of freedom of navigation for commercial aircraft. The fact that the State Department could not confirm whether the Chinese restrictions applied to commercial aircraft as well was irrelevant to the larger issue of free passage. China’s claim should have been flatly rejected out of the box.
From my perspective, that ended the first inning, with both sides striking out. Now the second inning begins, with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to East Asia starting on Sunday. He’ll visit Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. He will strike out, as well, with all three nations if the Obama administration doesn’t have a clear position on all facets of the challenge and a plan to back it up. If Biden doesn’t encourage Japanese and South Korean military planes to fly with the U.S. Air Force and Navy through the contested zones, it will be a missed opportunity. If he displays any indecision, it will be a signal that U.S. resolve may not be as strong as has been presumed so far.
Most importantly, if Biden does not make crystal clear that China’s restrictions will not stand for either civilian or military flights, for both the U.S. and any other nation that requests protection, then he will have struck out. If he bunts on the question of whether the U.S. will fully support Japan in protecting its airspace over the Senkakus, he will be thrown out at first. That will bring Xi Jinping back to the plate, now having “read the book” on the opposing pitcher and quite likely better prepared for America’s next pitch. This game is far from over.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.