Because China was not under any serious foreign military threat, its decision to declare an “air defense identification zone” over an area that includes islands claimed by both Japan and China was unnecessary. Because it was unnecessary, there are two obvious ways of looking at it. Either the gratuitous display of power was meant as a prelude to real aggression, or it was a bluff.
If the former, then the second act may have been averted when the U.S. flew B-52 bombers through the airspace, causing China to back down. If the latter, the bluff was called for all the world to see. In either of these scenarios, China looks like a paper tiger–a phrase used often in reference to China, but again repeated when it looked like China would do nothing too troublesome to defend the flag it planted. But both these analyses stem from judging events news cycle by news cycle–a typically Western habit exacerbated in the age of Twitter.
There is a third way of looking at it, though, and there is reason enough to think it aligns with how the Chinese government viewed the episode, which is still unfurling with Joe Biden’s visit to China today. This perspective is hinted at on the map of the air defense zone, of which the New York Times has an excellent version here. The Chinese air defense zone is predominantly in conflict with Japan’s airspace claims, but about a third of the zone looks to be encroaching on Taiwanese airspace, which, of course, is much closer to the Chinese mainland. It also overlaps with some airspace claimed by South Korea.
China did not win anything in the near term from the United States, it would appear. But that doesn’t mean China didn’t win anything at all in the near term, or that China didn’t win anything in the long run from the U.S. The opposite seems to be the case. First, from the Times, what the Chinese have won in the near term:
The vice president’s goal appears to be to neutralize the destabilizing impact of the air defense zone in the region by persuading the Chinese authorities to stop scrambling fighter jets or otherwise disrupt the busy air corridors between Japan and China.
China will likely interpret this as to some extent legitimizing China’s right to contest control of the airspace, just not to have that claim recognized as a fact in itself. It’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do beyond this. It’s therefore likely that, far from miscalculating, the Chinese leadership assessed the situation accurately. It may not be a monumental victory, but it’s more than they started with.
And the Washington Post’s writeup of Biden’s visit hints at what China may have won in the long run:
Aides said the vice president’s goals would include getting the Chinese to agree not to establish other such zones without first discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries.
China has reason to view this as a win on two levels: first, that the U.S. will essentially stay out of such regional line-drawing; and second, that “discussing their intentions with potentially affected countries” before rearranging borders is a loophole big enough to fly a B-52 bomber through.
It also suggests the Obama administration knows China is playing the long game. As Harry Kazianis notes at the Diplomat, an air defense zone over the disputed islands with Japan is presumably the opening act:
Beijing could use such wording to openly declare such a new ADIZ in the South China Sea — an area with sovereignty disputes involving multiple claimants. In fact, Beijing has already gone so far to claim 80 percent of the area, effectively taking control of Scarborough Shoal last summer, which is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines and is pressing its claims now on Second Thomas Shoal. China has also deployed its new aircraft carrier to the region in what could be seen as a show of force (although, let’s be frank, the carrier won’t be operational for sometime, however, the point is still made).
Second, when America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave guidance that U.S. domestic carriers should inform Beijing of their flight plans, Washington not only gave de facto approval of the East China Sea ADIZ, but also suggested that future moves would not be met with strong resistance. Truth be told, the Obama Administration was in a tight bind on the decision — not giving the information to Beijing could have put such flights and American lives in danger, and no one wants to see an accident turn into a crisis that won’t be easy to untangle considering the stakes. Yet, any move that gives this ADIZ declaration on China’s part any legitimacy will certainly be used by Beijing as a sign of acceptance. If we got away with it once, why not try the same move again and again?
President Obama’s openness to granting countries such as Russia and Iran their own spheres of influence will surely invite such challenges, but the Chinese air defense zone declaration is not really about Obama. It’s more about what he represents to some leaders: a weary, inward looking, declining power that at some point will be unwilling to challenge a major act of Chinese aggression either in the South China Sea or Taiwan. That day is not today, but the Chinese leadership is almost certainly curious as to when that will change.