Beijing's recent establishment of a new air defense zone in the East China Sea is exacerbating long-running disputes with its neighbors Japan and Taiwan -- and threatens to draw the US military into a larger regional conflict.
If it were only a matter of distance, the solution to a dispute over a small group of hotly contested islands in the East China Sea would be simple. Taiwan, which is just 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from the islands, would take the prize. The Chinese mainland is farther off, at 330 kilometers away, and the Japanese island of Okinawa even more distant, at 400 kilometers. Why then shouldn't small Taiwan take control of the five uninhabited islands and three rock outcroppings, known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan?
While Taiwan does lay claim to the islands, so do its more powerful neighbors, China and Japan. And the dispute is, unfortunately, not about distance. It has to do with influence and natural resources, with hegemony and nationalism, and with bitter historical memories and fresh, global aspirations -- in short, it's a toxic mixture of geopolitics. In fact, a military crisis is brewing in East Asia -- one that is being played out hundreds to thousands of kilometers away from these desolate islands.
A New Air Defense Zone
In Beijing, 1,600 kilometers to the northwest of the islands, the Defense Ministry announced a surprise decision a week ago Saturday to establish an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. The ministry said all aircraft that fly into the defined area will now be required to declare their intentions and adhere to the orders of Chinese air traffic controllers.
Two days later in Washington, 12,500 kilometers to the east of the disputed islands, US President Barack Obama challenged the Chinese move by sending two unarmed B-52 long-range bombers into the new zone. The aircraft took off from an air force base on the American island of Guam and, a few hours later, penetrated the Chinese surveillance zone without notifying Beijing. B-52s are designed to carry nuclear bombs to their targets. It was a strong signal.
When news of these US flights broke, it boosted confidence in Tokyo (1,800 kilometers away from the islands) and in Seoul (1,400 kilometers away). Since then, Japan and South Korea have also dispatched military aircraft into the Chinese zone. China responded by placing its air force on alert and sending up fighter jets to escort Japanese and American planes. The situation begs an obvious question: What happens if a foreign fighter jet and a Chinese interceptor meet and one of the pilots loses his nerve?
All of the players involved -- except China -- have concluded that Beijing's actions could jeopardize peace in East Asia. All it takes is for someone to make a sudden move. According to the Financial Times, retired Admiral William Fallon, the former commander of US armed forces in the Pacific, called the dispute "absolutely unnecessary," adding that "If you send up fighters, it is another opportunity for people to screw up." His comment was apparently aimed at all the parties involved: the Chinese, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Americans.
This week, US Vice President Joe Biden is set to visit Beijing. This was initially intended to be a relaxed meeting with President Xi Jinping, whom Biden knows well. But instead Obama's deputy now has to consider some serious questions: Could the Far East actually stumble into a war? What is driving the parties involved in this island dispute, which has been smoldering for decades, and is now threatening to become extremely dangerous? And what can the US do to avert an escalation?
China's motives in this conflict are clear: One year ago, the country surpassed the US as the world's largest trading nation, and 90 percent of Chinese exports are shipped by sea. At the same time, the rapidly growing country has been racing to establish its naval presence, just as the German Empire did over 100 years ago. Yet it bothers Beijing's military leaders that Chinese access to the Pacific is blocked by a chain of islands and peninsulas that are controlled by American allies.
The so-called "first island chain" has become a strategic obsession for the Chinese. China's navy celebrates maneuvers in which its ships sail out into the Pacific -- as the aircraft carrier Liaoning did last week -- as the "breakthrough" of this chain. Right in the middle of this chain, only 600 kilometers from the bustling port of Shanghai, lie the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
In the eyes of China's military, logic dictates that the country should gradually expand its airspace to include these islands; they view all objections from competitors as pure envy. "America is applying a double standard," says Chinese Major General Lou Yuan. "The US has surrounded itself with exclusion zones and demands of others that they identify themselves. Yet their aircraft refuse to call in. This is totally overbearing!"
The strategic fixation with the islands has also become a political one that extends beyond the narrow sphere of the military. Many mainstream bloggers in the country also vehemently criticize China's biggest rival, while supporting China's alleged right to self-assertion. "The Americans are like spoiled teenagers," writes blogger Jiangchen-jc, who argues that "they have to challenge others in order to prove their uniqueness."
The timing is most convenient for China's new political leadership. By taking a hardline approach on foreign and defense policy, it can now silence critics who suspected that the government had become too liberal with recent sweeping economic and social reforms.
Demonstrating Chinese Resolve
China's simplest means of demonstrating its resolve in the current nationalistic climate in East Asia is to take a tough stance against Japan. Neither the perpetrators nor the victims have come to terms with the years of occupation -- and the war crimes committed -- by the Japanese on Chinese soil during World War II. It is easy for China's leaders to score political points against the Japanese in a bout of saber-rattling.
Meanwhile, Tokyo is reveling in the US show of strength in the Pacific, taking it as a sign of solidarity. From Japan's perspective, China's efforts to expand its air defense zone have backfired. Beijing's unilateral action instead forced the Americans to more declaratively take sides with the Japanese in the ongoing island dispute.
The Obama administration had generally refrained from getting too deeply involved in the conflict. And even though the White House left little doubt last week that the Senkaku islands fall under the protection of the US-Japanese military alliance, it also stopped short of overtly taking sides with Japan. Furthermore, thanks to its own flyover, the US Air Force preempted a Japanese reaction, which Beijing might have responded to in a more aggressive manner. Japan, which maintains a strong, highly advanced army, would prove to be a significant opponent for China in the event of an outright military conflict. What's more, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed a desire to water down his country's strictly pacifist constitution.
US 'Pivots' to Asia
In 2011, Obama announced a "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region, shifting the American approach to China. The move was seen as a way of not only continuing US cooperation with China, but also containing Beijing's power in the region. "As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future," Obama said.
US reengagement in the Asia-Pacific also referred to America's military presence. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama's chief military adviser says, "The US military will be obliged to overtly confront China as it faced down the Soviet Union." By 2020, the Pentagon intends to station roughly 60 percent of its naval military forces in the Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and numerous destroyers, cruisers and submarines.
In 2011, the US began to expand its military presence in Australia, the first US military buildup in the Pacific since the Vietnam War. In the future, up to four US warships will be allowed to moor in the city-state of Singapore. Since 2011, former wartime opponent Vietnam has allowed the US Navy to use the port of Cam Ranh Bay.
Meanwhile, the Philippines are likely to become America's most important partner in a separate, but similar, conflict over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Some 40 percent of international maritime trade passes through those contested waters.
Washington and Manila have been negotiating since August on stationing more US Marines in the country. Filipino Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has already announced that the US will in the future inform his country's armed forces if Chinese ships enter territorial waters claimed by Manila. In exchange, US warships will soon be able return to Subic Bay, a Filipino naval station that the US Navy vacated in 1992.
Lessons from Europe?
The growing US military presence is intended to reassure America's closest Asian allies, but China views US encroachment in the region as a threat. When Vice President Biden travels through the region this week, he will have to maintain a delicate balance: He has to reassure US allies, yet at the same time caution them not to overreact. He also has to warn China over its provocative air defense zone, while maintaining an ongoing relationship between the two world powers.
After all, Europeans know all too well how quickly even rational foreign policy actors can find themselves enmeshed in irrational chain reactions in times of crisis. Historians and politicians have been discussing the similarities between China's current situation and the international stage prior to the outbreak of World War I for years.
American political scientist Robert Kagan says that Washington has taken on the role of the British Empire in East Asia, and the US must make it clear to Beijing -- "which is the Germany of the time" -- that it "will in fact respond if China behaves in a way that seems unacceptable."
In his bestseller "The Sleepwalkers," which describes how Europe entered the bloody catastrophe of World War I, historian Christopher Clark comments on today's global order: "Since the end of the Cold War, a system of bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers -- a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914," he writes.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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