It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”
The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”
For example, when Vice President Biden met in Beijing recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Moreover, the Obama administration has infuriated our close allies in Tokyo by telling U.S. airliners to abide by the Chinese ADIZ, even as Japan is telling its own airlines to ignore it.
The lack of a strong, consistent message from the administration is deeply injurious to our relationships with allies and to overall efforts to limit Chinese expansion. The leadership in Beijing is smart and they are willing to play a long game. They are not going to achieve overnight their ultimate ambition of reasserting historic Chinese domination of its neighboring states and pushing the U.S. military beyond the “first island chain” off the Chinese shore–a designation which takes in everything from Taiwan to the Philippines. Instead, the Chinese are taking one small nibble after another, testing the American reaction, and then, if there is no reaction, proceeding onto the next bite.
So far, unfortunately, the U.S. has given China no reason to doubt that its assertion of an ADIZ was a success–which means that further aggressive moves are in store before long.