Beijing’s Diplomatic Hardball and Washington’s Clumsy Response

As China’s economic and military power continues to grow, the country’s political leaders are engaging in increasingly assertive, if not abrasive, behavior. Two recent examples confirm that Beijing is determined to play diplomatic hardball.

The first was a stunningly meager pledge of aid to the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan. In an article over at China-U.S. Focus, I point out that while such countries as the United States, Australia, and Japan rushed to provide generous relief assistance, China’s response was miserly and grudging. Beijing initially offered a paltry $100,000 in aid funds, and then after some apparent reluctance upped that total to a still very modest $1.6 million.

That appeared to be a deliberate snub, and the Chinese leadership seemed willing to incur the negative international publicity. Beijing’s relations with Manila have been quite frosty in recent years, primarily because of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Tensions surged again earlier this year when the Philippines filed an unprecedented arbitration case—over Beijing’s strenuous objections—regarding those claims with the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chinese officials have been doing a slow burn since that filing.

One should not underestimate the depth of China’s anger about such developments, or the willingness of Chinese officials to “send Manila a message”—including by withholding humanitarian aid during a time of great need. The message is that there will be a substantial price to pay for any nation that defies China’s policy preferences and seeks to undermine China’s interests.

The second episode that confirms Beijing’s willingness to play diplomatic hardball was the announcement on November 23rd of a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. Portions of that ADIZ overlapped similar zones that Japan and South Korea had long implemented. China’s ADIZ also included the airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are the subject of a bitter territorial dispute between China and Japan, and airspace near another island involving a bilateral dispute with South Korea. Beijing insisted that all foreign military and commercial aircraft flying through the new zone file approved flight plans with the Chinese government.

That action was not well received. Unless Chinese leaders were uncharacteristically obtuse, Beijing had to anticipate that the Japanese and South Korean governments would not tamely accept the new proclamation and the procedures it outlined. They also had to assume that Washington would back the position of its allies. The decision appeared to be a diplomatic ploy to strengthen China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea, and quite possibly to be a precedent for creating a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea, where Beijing has even more extensive claims that various neighboring countries challenge.

What Chinese leaders may not have fully calculated was the nature of the reaction from the United States and its allies. Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington did not confine their response to diplomatic protests. Instead, all three countries promptly sent military aircraft (in Washington’s case, B-52 bombers) through the zone without complying with any of Beijing’s requirements. That defiance has infuriated the Chinese government, and tensions have now reached worrisome levels.

The measures that the United States and its allies adopted were both premature and excessive. China’s proclamation may not have been the most skillful diplomatic initiative, but creating a new ADIZ was not outrageous—especially since Japan has insisted on similar requirements in the same area for years. Indeed, Tokyo warns violators that they risk interception by Japanese military aircraft, and apparently has occasionally even carried out such intercepts. In any case, engaging in a provocative display of military power to defy China’s ADIZ was a clumsy response that has made matters even worse. This is an issue that cries out for restraint and sober dialogue on the part of all parties.