Joe Biden began his week in Japan, where Tokyo’s politicians are furious at China; he then flew into Beijing which is seething about Tokyo’s behaviour; and tomorrow he is due in South Korea, which is irate at both China and Japan. Welcome, Mr Vice-President, to East Asia’s new normal.
Two weeks ago, few people had ever heard of “air defence identification zones”, the Cold War-era set of regulations that China has decided to put in place across a large stretch of the East China Sea. But the obscure rules have become the latest flashpoint in the region’s unresolved disputes. By the end of the week, Air Force Two will probably have passed twice through the world’s most controversial airspace.
The air rules are part of a pattern: steady Chinese pressure to push its claims over disputed territories, particularly the islands Japan calls the Senkaku and China the Diaoyu. Since around 2008 China has been sending ships to patrol the seas around them. The air zone extends its claim to the skies above.
The long-term Chinese agenda is to exert greater control over the East China Sea and South China Sea and to ease the once dominant US Navy out of large stretches of the western Pacific. China is attempting what aspiring powers often do: to prevent another country from dominating its own region.
China’s move appear to be driving something of a wedge between Japan and the US. Tokyo was heartened when two US B-52 bombers flew across the air zone, calling China’s bluff. But to its displeasure, Washington has told US airlines to abide by the rules. Japan sees the pressure from China as a hot, immediate challenge: for the US, it is a more distant concern, a piece on a geopolitical chessboard.
Yet the Chinese tactics are too clever by half. Given Japan’s significant navy, China cannot just simply assert control over the Senkaku – as it was able to do last year with the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which is disputed by the Philippines. If Japan and the US maintain a firm and disciplined position and avoid provocations, the status quo is likely to hold for some time.
Even if China were to muscle control of the Senkaku from Japan, the downside would outweigh any potential gains. The uninhabited islands are a symbol of competing nationalism and of a great power tug-of-war, but they are of little strategic value and would be difficult to defend.
The diplomatic fallout would be immense. Beijing would like to isolate Japan in Asia. But such a move would end up engineering strong regional support for Japan. Even South Korea, one country that shares Beijing’s reservations about the Japanese, has been outraged by the Chinese air zone.
Most of all, Beijing would secure the enmity of the second-biggest economy in the region for generations. China, whose own economy depends on an open trading system, seems to think its tough approach will eventually oblige Japan to respect its designs for the region. But the likely result is one of two very different options: either a beefing up of the US-Japan alliance or a shift in Japan towards greater defence muscle, including even the possibility of a nuclear bomb. Beijing warns constantly about the revival of Japanese militarism, yet it is creating the conditions for its revival.
All of this raises questions about what sort of endgame China has in mind. In a recent speech in Beijing, Paul Keating, former Australian prime minister, laid out China’s dilemma. Mr Keating is one of a small group of retired Asia-Pacific leaders who believe the US should do more to accommodate China’s interests in the region and to share power with Beijing. But to his Chinese audience, he made a very different appeal. “There can be no stable and peaceful order in Asia unless Japan is, and feels itself to be, secure,” he said.
If Beijing really wants to shape the next century in Asia at the expense of the US, it will need friends and allies to advance its priorities and to push its agenda.
If, instead, it steps up efforts to coerce its neighbours, China is setting itself up to be a very lonely great power.