For the United States and its allies other than Japan, ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter. What matters is the contest for influence in Asia which is being played out through the dispute, with China on one side, and the US and Japan on the other.
Ben Schreer’s post earlier today looked at the new ADIZ from the perspective of Washington and her allies in Asia, and in the context of that competition. So far, it looks like Washington and Tokyo have come out on top. But it would be risky to assume the move was just a mistake by Beijing.
Nothing that has happened in the last week should have come as a surprise to Beijing. There was always going to be a statement of support from the US. The Chinese probably hoped it wouldn’t be as clear, but Hagel’s words should have been seen as well within the bounds of possibility.
The same goes for the B-52s. Beijing will have known that the only option available to Tokyo and Washington was to violate the new ADIZ. They probably hoped that the planes would be Japanese and not American, but the appearance of USAF aircraft won’t have been a shock.
It’s risky to just assume China miscalculated, because all the responses so far have been obvious. Suggesting that this was just a mistake on Beijing’s part means suggesting that they either didn’t plan the move, or didn’t think it through very well. That’s a bad way to formulate policy, both because it’s a mistake to underestimate an adversary, and because it doesn’t ring true of Chinese strategic policy making of recent years.
So if it wasn’t a mistake, it was a statement: China is prepared to contest those issues it considers in its vital interests. It is prepared to accept high risks, and perhaps high costs as well.
Australia’s own little corner of the crisis runs along these lines. After calling in the Chinese Ambassador to admonish Asia’s superpower for its reckless behaviour, Australia was promptly told to pull our head in. Australia will of course continue to support the US and also Japan. But Beijing has communicated that it’s happy to make a point, and that siding with its competitors will carry costs.
Before we dismiss Beijing’s confidence as a bluff, we should look at a map. If things get out of hand, the question won’t be whether the US or China is the strongest military power in the world. It would be: who’d be prepared to accept the costs of a conflict over the islands? The islands are about 340km form China, but almost 8000km from Hawaii, and almost 11,000km from Los Angeles.
Both Tokyo and Beijing have noticed this—they’ve been poring over the question of whether or not the US would really be prepared to accept the costs of a war to support Japan over the islands. That’s because in recent months (and in particular since the Sunnylands Summit and Obama’s red-line debacle in Syria) US statements of support have focused more on the fact that America takes no sides in the territorial dispute itself than on Washington’s willingness to aid Japan militarily. That emphasis, and the muted support from senior administration officials since the beginning of the year, had made Tokyo nervous.
Now, under duress, the US has changed its emphasis. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said ‘The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S. Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands’. The statement explicitly links Article V to the island dispute, from a senior administration official, and was overtly intended for a Chinese audience. And it happened at a moment when Tokyo needed the support—just what Japan was after, and a combination that’s been missing. I’ve also argued elsewhere that had the US made a clearer statement of support earlier, it could have linked it to a sincere Japanese effort to resolve the crisis.
The most important feature of this spat is the apparent gap between China’s resolve and America’s. China is confident enough in its capacity to achieve its objectives that it can provoke the US and Japan—it would be hubris for us to count on any other interpretation.
The US, by contrast, waited till backed into a corner to more strongly assert its support for Japan. The growth of Chinese power is too great a challenge to be countered by reactive policy, and it’s not going away. Washington wants to stay a part of an Asia in which it helps to guarantee peace, and Australia wants that too. But if it’s going to happen America needs to start making plans ahead of time.
Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.