What’s Happening in the East China Sea?

The subject at the Aspen Strategy Group was “The Future of American Defense.” The speakers were Michelle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense for policy, and Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Not until time was running out on this otherwise interesting review of American defense policy was a question raised about the future of American policy towards China. Both speakers quickly leaped at the question, labeling it, in no uncertain terms, as the most important strategic question facing the Obama administration. Both argued that the U.S. had to engage China in the solution of global problems — make China a “stakeholder,” they said, using a word many forward-thinking diplomats have begun to apply to the U.S.-China dialogue.

Yes, these same diplomats are acutely aware of the uncertainties in the implementation of the new nuclear agreement with Iran, and they worry deeply about the Syrian civil war, which in recent months has shown a disturbing tendency to cross national boundaries. But when these diplomats and think tank experts lift their sights above the immediate horizon of problems facing the United States, they almost inevitably focus on China.

What will be the nature of U.S.-China relations 10 or 20 years from now? Will China be an ally, with whom cooperation would be the norm of the relationship? Or will China be a rival, against whom the U.S. would have to position its diplomatic and military resources?

The accumulating evidence would strongly suggest that China will become America’s chief rival in the Pacific; maybe China has already become America’s chief rival. One need look no further than recent developments in the East China Sea, where China and Japan have been arguing about which country has sovereignty over a sprawling chain of small uninhabited islands called the Senkakus in Japan and the U.S. The Chinese have another name for them — the Diaoyou islands. Why would either country argue about uninhabited islands? Because it is believed that they sit on vast natural gas reserves.

Last weekend, the Chinese astonished the U.S. and Japan, very close allies with similar views about Senkaku sovereignty, by declaring that all planes flying in this zone must get China’s permission. They must submit flight plans to Beijing. “If an aircraft doesn’t supply its flight plans,” the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced, “China’s armed forces will adopt emergency defensive measures in response.”

Wait a minute!, was the immediate reaction in Tokyo and Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel denounced the Chinese announcement as a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,”…increasing “the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida echoed Hagel’s statement, describing the Chinese action as “one-sided” with the potential to “trigger unpredictable events” and “cannot be allowed.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qing Gang seized this moment fraught with unpredictable consequences to blast Japan and the U.S. He said, “Japan has no right to make irresponsible remarks” and “groundless accusations,” and the “U.S. should keep its word of not taking sides on the issue…and stop making improper remarks.”

Obviously, the U.S. felt it could not allow China to disrupt the status quo in the East China Sea, because within a few days two B-52 strategic bombers flew over the disputed islands without informing the Chinese. And the Chinese took no action. The U.S. described the overflights as “routine,” planned months before the Chinese announcement.

This is dangerous stuff. The Chinese only recently concluded an important meeting of their top leaders. Is their announcement concerning flights over the East China Sea a signal of a new tough policy? What will happen if the Japanese decide to test the Chinese warning?

President Obama clearly wants to accent diplomacy and lean no longer on military action, which seemed to be American policy in the last decade. That seems to be the message of his recent decisions with respect to Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. But, China casts a huge shadow over his strategic deliberations, raising questions about whether his preference for diplomacy can work in Asia, specifically in the East China Sea.