Playing chicken in the East China Sea

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Playing chicken in the East China Sea

Since the day China declared an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) that covers the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the media have been full of predictions of confrontation and crisis. On that same day Japan scrambled two F-15 fighters to intercept two Chinese aircraft that approached the islands.
“This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” said US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and later the US Air Force flew two B-52 bombers from Guam into the ADIZ. A Pentagon spokesman said Washington “continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.” But forcing incoming aircraft to do just that is the whole point of creating an ADIZ. Aircraft entering the zone must provide a flight plan, maintain two-way radio communications and clearly identify their nationality, said the Chinese Defense Ministry, and aircraft that ignore the rules would be subject to “defensive emergency measures.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Japan’s Parliament that the zone “can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well” — but later Tokyo instructed Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA) to simply ignore the zone when flying through it. It is turning into a game of chicken, and the East China Sea is just about the worst place in the world for that kind of foolishness.
China and Japan have been pursuing an increasingly angry dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are under Japanese administration. Beijing is looking for a diplomatic victory here, not a war, but it is taking a very big gamble. Just how does China intend to enforce its new ADIZ? By shooting down a Japan Airlines 787 and a US Air Force B-52? If not that, then how? National pride and the personal reputation of new President Xi Jinping are both seriously committed to this game now, and if the foreigners ignore the zone China cannot just shrug its shoulders and forget about it.
Which brings us to the key question: Did Beijing really game out this move before it decided to set the zone up? Did it set up teams to play the Japanese and the Americans realistically, look at what they might do to challenge the zone, and consider its own counter-moves? That’s what most great powers would do before launching a challenge like this, and maybe China did that too. But maybe it didn’t. When you put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese navy or air force commander trying to enforce the new ADIZ, you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He can shoot something down, of course, but even his own government would quail at the possible consequences of that.
Quite apart from the grave danger of escalation into a full-scale military confrontation with Japan and the United States, the economic damage to China would be huge. On the other hand, if he doesn’t compel aircraft transiting the zone to accept China’s new rules, both he and his political superiors will be open to the charge of failing to defend national sovereignty. This is a lose-lose situation, and I suspect that the Chinese government and military really didn’t game it through before they proclaimed the ADIZ.

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