SINOGRAPH China relies on cooling US hand
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Perhaps at the end of the day there are two ways to look at China's establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are disputed with Japan. Yes, many countries have an ADIZ, including neighboring Japan, and China perhaps sooner or later would have to establish one. But clearly China's new ADIZ was not a routine
move but a way to press ahead with the claims on the Senkakus, held by Tokyo.
The new ADIZ was, firstly, part of a grand strategy to confront neighboring countries and expand China's territorial reach. Or, secondly, it was a mistake, a gross miscalculation of the present regional balance in the seas around China.
If it was part of a strategy, well, this is almost useless to think about because this strategy would be self-defeating and bound to take China down the path of self-destruction because it has too many powerful neighbors to try to expand at their expense. Moreover, expansion would be contrary to decades of the strategy of peaceful development and contrary to the recent pronouncement by Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for improved ties with the neighbors.
If it was a gross mistake, then China's poor assessment of the balance of power starts with miscomprehension of the strategic importance of the American presence in Asia.
Many Chinese now think that the American presence in Asia is an obstacle to China's political and economic growth in the region and look forward to the time when a weak United States will move out and leave the region in their hands. They think that the arrogance of neighbors is due to the fact that America is backing them. Without US support, all these countries would kneel down and accept the regional importance of China.
This assessment is grossly wrong, and betrays wishful thinking in China's strategic mindset, which cannot cope with a new modern reality of state-to-state relations, and conversely, harks back to the time when China was surrounded by vassal states paying homage to the court in Beijing. Very simply and without going into too much detail, the time of the vassal states relationship is gone.
Vassal states no longer exist because international relations are no longer based on the format of a central state and a constellation of vassal states. America, the present "central state", does not operate like that, and also the material premises of the old Chinese vassal state relationship no longer exist.
The vassal states system around China was based on a time when China represented more than half of the wealth and the population of the region, in which neighbors were linked in some ways as vassals. In those times, before the massive impact of Western powers on China in the 19th century, Tibet was a kind of vassal state and India was completely out of the Chinese picture politically. America was nowhere, Europe was also nowhere, and neighboring Southeast Asian countries held their allegiance partly to China and partly to other neighbors. Geography was too far and too big an obstacle to make them close to China.
Now, however, as Tibet has become part of China, India is a neighboring state, Southeast Asia is closer to the heart of China. Russia is also present politically, as are the United States, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. They all have significant commercial and economic ties with China. But even without taking into account America, Latin America, Europe, or Africa, all the neighboring countries around China - from India to Japan to Thailand to Vietnam to Russia - have a combined greater population than China and combined greater wealth and military power than China. So this is far different from the times when China was a giant and the vassals were just minions.
The context is also very different. Decades ago, China's rise in normal circumstances would have triggered an arms race or border wars. Today, neighbors are just starting to be worried about China's rise - some 25 years after the crackdown on the Tiananmen movement made the world scared of its leaders' intentions. Then, controlled behavior in Washington helped to keep the whole situation in check.
In all this period of fast Chinese development, no border war has broken out (despite all the disputes around China) and there has been no significant arms race (which could have drained China's resources from necessary investment in economic development). This was due to the fact that America was there to guarantee China's rise, the security of the region, and the overall balance of power. The US presence and its importance are still apparent now.
If America were to disappear from the region - as if by magic - it is not that every country would accept Chinese power. Quite the contrary: tensions would explode because nobody would trust China to be fair, nor trust China to solve regional frictions amicably, draining Chinese resources from economic development at a time when Beijing needs to concentrate on its welfare and development in coming decades. Concentration on foreign affairs could exacerbate domestic problems, with a huge impact on the domestic balance of power.
Why haven't tensions already exploded? America has been there, and it was a check on power in the region that thwarted temptations among many neighboring countries to move into an arms race or to take a more militant attitude toward China. This gave China time, resources, and economic possibilities, so that the country could look after its internal affairs and concentrate on its many social and domestic political issues, while thinking less of its foreign affairs.
More specifically, on the Senkakus, the issue is not new. Tensions began building at least 15 years ago, when China and Japan were trying to establish the continental basis to lay claim to gas fields thereabouts. In that period, Japan was eager to establish the legal status of the Senkakus as islands, not rocks, to expand its territorial claim. If in that moment, when Japan was vastly stronger economically and militarily than China, America had not been present, Japan may have been more inclined to use many means of coercion to assert its possession of the Senkakus, and after that it would've been harder for China to reclaim those islands.
Moreover, neighboring countries, 10 or 20 years ago were already worried about Chinese economic growth, and would have started acting up against Chinese development much earlier because it was evident that China's growth could run counter to their best interests. Therefore many countries could have tried, directly or indirectly, to thwart China's economic growth. Most likely, without America's presence in the region, war would have broken out in the region. And with war, Chinese development would have slowed. China could have been isolated and a cycle of underdevelopment and tension could have beleaguered the whole region.
This scenario didn't take shape for many reasons, including Chinese prudence and calculations, and also because the United States acted an important guarantor of regional stability. Without America in the picture, things could have been far more complicated. For one, Japan might have started a nuclear program to confront nuclear China, just as India declared its nuclear program in 1998 to be not against Pakistan but against China. It is true that tensions started to increase in 2010, when then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton intervened on the issue of the South China Sea, disputed by six countries. But if tensions had not been a factor, nobody would have taken the American bait.
The point is not so much why Clinton ignited tensions in 2010 but why the Americans didn't do it earlier. This leaves aside the problem of what America will do and will want to do in Asia in the future, which is a different issue.
This brings us back to the present state of affairs. When China declared this ADIZ, what would have happened if America were not in the region? Japan would have had to defy the ADIZ to prove that it was not under the Chinese thumb, and even if Japan didn't, many others would have come up with ways to counter the new Chinese ambition because its simply scary for a big guy to behave in such an arrogant way, tossing its weight around against smaller people.
In this situation Japan - or India, Vietnam, or Russia - may come up with a plan to defy the Chinese ADIZ, and China would then have to consider countermeasures; things could easily spin out of control. The fact that America decided to fly its planes in the area is a way of softening the Japanese reaction, and it immediately took hold of the situation. A problem with China then became a problem with another big guy, America. Otherwise, if it were Japan defying China, Chinese domestic opinion would put a lot of pressure on the leadership to respond to Tokyo and therefore start a tug of war around the Senkakus.
So in this case, America proved that its presence is necessary, not simply to check China, but to protect China from itself and from its neighbors. In fact, in this respect China needs America more than America needs China. America's presence can help defuse tensions and lubricate relationships, which will be harder as China continues to grow in regional influence. However, if America were to leave the region, it would lose its weight on the global stage and lose its global hegemony, but it wouldn't grossly influence its domestic security.
Most importantly, there is the issue of the situation surrounding China and the situation around the Senkaku. As things stood before China's declaration of its ADIZ, China was winning this confrontation with Japan just by standing by idle. It had just to wait to wear down Japan, as in a siege, and the mere fact that the islands were de facto disputed when Japan didn't admit it was such nonsense that Japan would have had to give in sooner or later.
However, China's extension of the ADIZ puts everything in a different light. It supports the arguments of those who believe China is trying to expand its outer reach and to increase its territorial claims, and therefore it must be checked.
These voices come from the region, from America, and from all over the world because China is just too big not to raise concerns. But it would be naive and self-effacing to think that these arguments are US-produced and spread in the world. It is just the opposite: the world feels them and America voices them. The same process, and then a similar mistake in China, occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, when for a couple of years China stopped floating its currency, despite American protestations. China felt it was just the US acting up. In reality smaller countries, starting with China's neighbors, were suffering more from the undervalued Chinese yuan, and the fact that America protested it openly softened the position of everybody and made it easier to find a solution.
These issues leave open other very thorny questions such as America's pivot to Asia, its strategy, and its direction. This also this opens the issue of China conveniently drumming up internal constituencies against possible foreign threats in order to appease domestic opposition and gather some support at a delicate time when China is facing major economic and political reforms. The two issues are very important developments and should be considered carefully since the announcement of the new Chinese ADIZ.
At the moment, the muted Chinese response after the Americans and Japanese defied the ADIZ seems to indicate Beijing is realizing it made a mistake in the declaration of the new no-fly zone.
This provides an opening for the future. Chinese economic growth is bringing about the economic growth of its neighbors, and thus problems with neighbors will increase. Countries want to be "the next China", challenging Beijing economically, if the economy works, and militarily if the economy does not work. In this situation, is the best course of action for China to confront these economic, political, and military threats directly or lubricated by America?
The question is also nonsensical because the US has been in Asia for decades and is not leaving. But if the US wanted to check China's growth and save money in a time of need, it could simply withdraw from Asia (saving billions in arms), sell weapons more or less discriminately around China's borders (making money on it), and leave Asians to their own devices and a developing arms race - something that could easily end up in a massive regional war, sinking the region for a century.
The fact that America is not doing that should help China to reconsider its own strategy of development and international relations at a time when the 21st century is perhaps really beginning.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org