The Bloomberg piece lays out the now-familiar “salami-slicing” strategy, compared to the game Go, to push out neighboring powers to establish a zone of influence in the East China Sea. Next up will be the South China Sea, according to Douglas Paal, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“China is playing the classic game of weiqi, wherein it slowly expands influence through steps that are not a threshold to violence and do not trigger a forcible response,” Paal said, referring to the strategic board game known as Go in English. “Next steps are likely in the South China Sea, but this will be delayed as China builds out its radar and intercept infrastructure.”
The nice thing is such a strategy achieves two goals simultaneously. It creates a zone of influence and also erodes a clear, rules-based order, sending up the mist of ambiguity the Chinese Communist Party likes to operate under. This is part of a macro trend across a number of realms as China’s power increases.
Forgiving any translation errors – which are possible, take a look at this comment about the significance of China’s Air Defense Identification Zone from one Ma Jun, a research fellow of the department of foreign military studies.
“It shows China is willing to participate in the formulation of international rules. Like it or not, China has set up a new ‘rule of game’ in the East China Sea. China will no longer allow others to unilaterally establish international rules, especially those concerning its neighbors and itself.”
So, China’s “participation” is the unilateral creation of rules in its region like the ADIZ, as opposed to what it sees as the “unilaterally” established international rules by others. But the more interesting idea comes next. Jun writes:
“China will not blindly obey to the rules not agreed upon by China as it now has the desire and capability to guarantee the regional security. This is a fact other countries should learn to accept. As a member of the international community, China should not be excluded from the formulation of international rules.”
I am not sure China can actually guarantee regional security, which takes a mix of significant military commitments and diplomatic flexibility. But the assumption that rules come unilaterally seems to say a lot about China’s understanding of rule-making in general. It shows the kind of brittleness in the China’s relations with its neighbors.
Frankly, if Ma Jun simply wrote that China expects a big seat at the table on these matters, one befitting its size and influence, his position would be much clearer. Instead, the explanation that China shouldn’t be excluded from the “formulation” of international rules hints that the “formulation” of rules by China by necessity involves a top-down approach at home and abroad. This is the kind of thing that rattles neighbors and causes uncertainty.
1) The Chinese word for the islands means “fishing platform.”
2) Although the media frequently refers to the September 2012 decision by the government of Tokyo to purchase the islands at the escalation of the diplomatic row, an earlier flare-up occurred on September 7, 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese coastguard ships. The Japanese arrested the captain and crew triggering a diplomatic spat between China and Japan.
3) Despite being an ally of Japan, the US takes no position on the ultimate ownership of the islands.
4) A Japanese politician claims that in 2012 Japan was close to reaching a resolution over the islands with China. The lead-up to China’s leadership change, however, prevented that. According to DPJ lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima (at the time a special adviser to then PM Yoshihiko Noda on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issues) wrote recently that Japanese officials became “positive about the prospects of being able to elicit a ‘tacit acceptance’ from China…[but] “a group of Chinese leaders who were inclined to accept (Noda’s policy) lost its clout” in the power struggle ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress.
5) Taiwan, which calls the islands the Diaoyutai, has an ownership dispute over the islands with China and Japan as well. But Japan and Taiwan have signed an agreement to share fishing rights around the islands.
6) The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is likely not about undersea gas and oil. Yes, China and Japan are energy-hungry nations. Both countries have shown a great willingness to engage in resource diplomacy to secure steady supplies of resources around the world. But frankly, they have found easier, more reliable sources of supply than in a highly contested zone with planes and ships from four different countries patrolling. The reality is the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute provides a tangible issue for an intangible struggle between two nations that have a long history of antagonism. After WWII, the power rested with the US-backed Japan. Now the world watches to see if China can successfully change the status quo created by the post-war US-Japan alliance.
China has not responded with one voice after the US sent planes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But of the mix of reactions, one stands out to me. The WallStreet Journal ChinaRealTime blog contains a post called “Chinese Bloggers Turn Fire on Beijing Amid U.S. B-52 Challenge“
The blog notes the criticism of the PLA by China’s legion of bloggers on Weibo. Of those reactions, two quotes are the most intriguing.
“The immediate reaction (from U.S.) with both words and action shows the adventurism in China’s decision over the air defense zone, and the passive and embarrassing consequence resulting from that,” Pan Jiazhu, a well-known columnist on military issues who goes by Zhao Chu on his verified Weibo account, wrote.
So China is embarrassed by the B-52 flyover. But it’s “military hardliners” who made the decision on the no-fly zone.
“Military hardliners created this situation and made a no-fly zone, thinking they can play with little Japan, which has brought out U.S. bombers and slapped hardliners in the face,” art and culture critic Wu Zuolai wrote. “Where’s the hardliners’ spokesman? How do we end this?”
And it points to this split within China between the civilian and military rule. Surely, a decision as provocative as the creation of the air defense identification zone would be flagged to leaders outside the military. But maybe it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, it suggests that Xi doesn’t have complete control over the military. Parts of the military can still freelance on these territorial issues. Hence, the confusing decision to spring the ADIZ on the world as well as the conflicted response from China in its aftermath.
I think this is at the heart of the US unease about China’s power in Asia. It’s not necessarily that China is going to supplant the US as the world’s number one economy. Rather it’s that China remains a developing country riven by internal divisions, making its future course at home and in the region incredibly difficult to predict.