A helicopter of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force lifts off from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
A helicopter of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force lifts off from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during Annual Exercise 2013.
U.S. Navy Handout

Much of the coverage of China’s November 23 announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over waters claimed by Japan and South Korea has focused on the reactive and blundering nature of Chinese diplomacy. China’s sudden insistence on its right to take defensive action against foreign aircraft in this zone, the argument goes, was either an attempt to play to domestic nationalism or else to respond to Japan’s own increasing assertiveness in the region. Either way, the coverage concludes, China underestimated how quickly and vigorously other countries in the region would respond, including with flights directly into that airspace.   

The implication of this analysis, which may be tempting to the overstretched Obama administration, is that Beijing made a hasty move that the region will now correct with a little help from Washington. Unfortunately for the administration, however, this was not just an ill-conceived slap by Beijing against a testy Japan. The reality is that the new ADIZ is part of a longer-term attempt by Beijing to chip away at the regional status quo and assert greater control over the East and South China Seas.

To understand this reality, one must begin the story of the ADIZ before Japan’s nationalization of three of the eight disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in 2012, which is where most assessments start. Over three decades ago, China and Japan agreed to set aside their disagreement over the islands and focus on a common problem: the Soviet Union. It was China that first nullified the understanding by staking claim to the islands in 1992. It was also China that, in 2008, began significantly expanding its maritime patrols in and around those waters. In recent years, the Chinese maritime services have conducted patrols at least once a day near the islands and have crossed Japan’s 12-nautical-mile border around the islands on hundreds of occasions. Meanwhile, Chinese navy units have circumnavigated Japan and conducted major military exercises on all sides of the Japanese archipelago. In other words, by the time Tokyo purchased some of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands from private landowners in 2012, Chinese pressure had reached alarming levels for Tokyo.

Both Japanese and Chinese diplomacy on the issue have been inept at times, of course, but the difference is that Japan -- which has effective administrative control of the islands -- is trying to preserve the status quo, whereas China is bent on using coercive pressure to try to change it. And Japan is not China’s only target. Beijing has also been pressing Manila over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) in the South China Sea. China has increased its maritime and air presence around the contested area and imposed export bans on key products from the Philippines. (This strategy smacks of the same mercantilism China showed when it halted rare earth exports to Japan because of those two countries’ island disputes.)

Unlike the ongoing dispute with Japan, the Scarborough Shoal confrontation is going badly for Manila. In 2012, Chinese maritime patrol ships finally overwhelmed the tiny Philippine navy and took de facto control of the shoals. Filipinos whose families have fished those waters for a millennium are now barred from entering.

Japan’s air force and navy are too strong for China to attempt a similar grab of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands anytime soon. But Hanoi, Manila, Taipei, and Tokyo all sense that, in the Scarborough Shoal, Beijing “killed the chicken to scare the monkey,” as officials from those governments say. Most observers would agree that China has every intention of following the same strategy against Japan, just in slow motion. Although the smaller powers have remained quiet about the announcement of a new Chinese defense zone, most are privately urging Japan not to back down.

Japan, South Korea, and the United States have stated that they will not let the Chinese ADIZ announcement change their military operations in the area. To prove the point, the Pentagon sent two B-52 bombers out of Guam to fly through the new defense zone. Japan and South Korea quickly followed suit with their own patrols. The administration’s opening move certainly demonstrated by word and deed that Beijing went too far. But if the Chinese announcement comes from a deeper strategy of coercing smaller states and establish greater control in the Western Pacific -- as many governments in the region rightly suspect -- then Washington had better be prepared for a longer-term test of wills with Beijing.

The administration needs to consider the larger context that the rest of the region sees. Some of the policies included in the so-called rebalance to Asia will help, including the announcement in October that Washington and Tokyo will revise their bilateral defense guidelines to deal with new contingencies, including from China. Other moves have been less helpful. It was not lost on China or Japan, for example, that U.S. service chiefs testified in front of Congress that planned defense budget cuts would leave the armed forces unable to fulfill their current missions or security commitments; that U.S. President Barack Obama threw the decision about honoring his redline in Syria to Congress; or that senior U.S. officers in the Pacific continue trying to calm the waters by speaking of a new strategic partnership with China and naming climate change as their greatest security concern in the region.

More immediately, the disconnect between Washington and Tokyo this week over whether commercial flights should recognize the ADIZ and file flight plans with Beijing (Tokyo says no and Washington says yes) was a poor case of alliance management and an embarrassment for Tokyo during a serious security problem. Whatever the merits of each side’s respective policies in terms of strategic signals and airline safety, the two will have to work as one in the future.

The Obama administration needs to stick to a disciplined message of resolve and reassurance. And that would mean accurately assessing Beijing’s strategic intent. Confrontation with China is far from inevitable, and the potential areas for productive U.S.-Chinese cooperation remain vast. Vice President Joe Biden will no doubt emphasize the positive in U.S.-Chinese relations when he travels to Beijing this week. And that makes sense. But he should also leave no doubt that the United States is prepared to work with regional allies and partners to ensure Beijing understands that its attempts at coercion will not work. Then, when he is in Tokyo and Seoul, he should take time to listen carefully to what those allies think is at stake in the troubled East and South China Seas. Their problem is our problem, not just because we are allies but also because this moment could determine how China uses its growing power.

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  • MICHAEL J. GREEN is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Associate Professor at Georgetown University. He served as Director and then Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council staff from 2001 to 2005.
  • More By Michael J. Green