In a recent Strategist post, Harry White offers some insightful analysis on China’s recently announced ‘air defence identification zone’ (ADIZ) over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Many commentators simply see ADIZ as a mistake—one likely to generate the type of hawkish reaction from Japan and the United States that it has so far sought to avoid. As Ben Schreer points out, it’s the type of action that seems ill-suited to what China has labelled its ‘peaceful rise’.
White instead argues that this latest episode should be seen as deliberate signal that China is willing to ‘contest those issues it considers in its vital interests’ in the East China Sea. As such, the ADIZ should be construed as the result of strategic deliberations and planning, as opposed to being an ill-conceived mistake. As he notes, ‘most of the responses so far have been obvious’. He’s also quite critical not only of the prevalent view that China’s ADIZ is a bluff but even that Obama has a strong reaction to this dispute.
White should be commended for offering such a contrarian view of the whole ADIZ spat. But I suggest that his argument fails to really hit its mark. First, he argues that China likely undertook the ADIZ after careful deliberation and with full realisation of its possible consequences. On the face of it, such a premise seems more than possible. After all, it’s not a stretch to imagine that an ADIZ over disputed territories would create some push back from Washington and Tokyo. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), by all reports a sophisticated military actor, has likely given some thought on the possible contingencies that could arise from this declaration.
But this doesn’t mean that China, or indeed the PLA, pushed the ADIZ following some pristine strategic planning process. Strategic planning is often the result of the push-and-pull of various bureaucratic and political actors, not all of whom might see eye-to-eye. So yes, the PLA might’ve planned for and expected US and Japanese reactions—itself a more than disconcerting thought. But other key players are another matter entirely.
Indeed, political leaders in the Chinese Communist Party mightn’t have given much thought to the ADIZ’s consequences. It wouldn’t be the first time leaders of a major power undertook action without adequate attention to its consequences. One only need to look at the US decision to invade Iraq, which resulted in predictable consequences that were at least as clear as those that followed China’s announced ADIZ.
This paints a more complex picture of Chinese strategic policy-making. The PLA may have knowingly pushed for the ADIZ, but a more important question is then why other domestic actors permitted them to do so—a question that goes to the heart of not only the policy consensus within Beijing but also to the state of China’s civil-military relations and the leadership dynamics under President Xi Jinping.
Second, White also puts stock in the belief that China is not simply bluffing with the ADIZ. As he makes clear, the disputed islands are located proximate to China and at a great distance from such American locales as Hawaii or Los Angeles. Rather than focus on military capabilities, White does a good job in emphasising the possible imbalance of resolve between China and the United States. This point is an important one, in so far as it underpins his criticism that the Obama administration needs to do more to deter Chinese action (to be discussed below).
But White ignores the proximity of US military bases in Japan, including the naval base in Yokosuka and the Kadena air base, the latter being especially close to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. With deployed military forces in Japan, the United States provides an unmistakable deterrence signal to Beijing—one that helps offset the imbalance of resolve that faces an extra-regional power like the United States.
Third, he discounts how President Obama has so far handled this situation. Yes, B-52s were deployed into this ADIZ. But he also offers an unflattering portrait of how the administration has dealt with the matter so far—by emphasizing its initial neutrality in this dispute, and then only belatedly reaffirming Article 5 of the US–Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. As White argues elsewhere, a stronger deterrence signal would have been to clearly state how Article 5 covered these islands.
Yet there are two things wrong with this analysis. On one hand, it ignores the concrete deterrence signal offered by the presence of American forces in Japan, which is perhaps stronger than any declaratory rhetoric about Article 5. It’s one thing to ignore a country’s rhetorical commitment; it’s something else entirely to risk military action over disputed islands when sizable American military forces are located so close by at Kadena air base.
On the other hand, this view exaggerates the importance of America’s refusal to burnish its Article 5 commitment until it was ‘backed into a corner’. In fact, the US has long preferred a two-track approach that first prioritised professed neutrality, with stronger statements that clarified the Article 5 commitment only when Sino-Japanese tensions noticeably increase. This can be seen in previous episodes, such as when Chinese activists landed on the islands in 1996 and 2005 or when Chinese survey vessels entered their territorial waters in 2008 (PDF).
Ultimately, it’s highly unlikely that such an approach would create uncertainty as to American commitments and encourage Chinese belligerence today, when it has been so consistently and successfully applied by previous administrations.
David S. McDonough is a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of British Colombia and a research fellow in the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Twitter: @DS_McDonough. Image courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command.