Suddenly in the East China Sea there's fresh alarm at the unilateral tactics of China against its neighbors Japan and South Korea.
Is this a regional squabble, or is China unfurling a new global strategy?
The current trouble started on Nov. 23, when the Chinese Defense Ministry reasserted claims over the Japanese-claimed uninhabited Senkaku Islands as well as eastward into Japan’s airspace, and northeast into South Korea’s airspace with the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
China’s cross-claim in the air came 14 months after its Ministry of Foreign Affairs unilaterally defined the territorial waters of the East China Sea in such a way that the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands, are under Chinese control.
The Chinese ADIZ assertion extended “rights defense law enforcement action” requiring all aircraft in the zone to obey Chinese demands.
Escalation followed swiftly. The U.S., Japan, South Korea and China responded serially with warplanes crisscrossing the zone. On Nov. 26, the U.S. provocatively sent two B-52 Stratofortress bombers, while officials from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and Beijing issued stern announcements.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphasized that the United States believes the Senkakus are part of Japan and would therefore be covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty.
An adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commented, “This is one of the most serious challenges ever posed by China to freedom of movement both on the sea and in the sky.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry declared, “China is defining, controlling and monitoring other countries’ war planes’ action in our air defense zone.”
The Obama administration said it does not recognize the legitimacy of the Chinese claim but advised all American carriers to obey Chinese demands.
More than a week later, a sophisticated game of chicken continues over the stony, misty wasteland of the uninhabitable Senkakus.
During Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan on his way to talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the U.S. State Department asked China to “rescind” the ADIZ.
China’s new bosses, the fifth generation of leaders since the communist revolution, are busy establishing their fresh style of governance. The Economist calls Xi’s policy “a mixture of economic reforms and strident nationalism.” So far, he has been pushing his military might not only in the East China Sea against Japan but also in the South China Sea against the Philippines and Vietnam, against the Indian frontier and the desperate Tibetan and Uighur peoples. After he endorsed the country’s navy by inspecting a new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and a destroyer and submarine in Hainan, Xi announced a planned build-out of China’s air forces to implement the new ADIZ policy.
Japan has also demonstrated reawakened economic and national boldness under Abe, who has routinely pushed back against China, dispatching coast guard vessels and warplanes to the Senkakus as well as to the Philippines to bolster Manila’s cash-strapped struggle against Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea.
If this is only a regional face-off between China and Japan, its roots are likely in the hateful conduct of imperial Japan in the 1930s in China. Neither side loses at home politically in this spitting match, as the Chinese and Japanese populations have an astonishing 90 percent unfavorable impression of each other.
And yet I see much more to the confrontation than retail nationalism. This strategic advance by China takes into account another event that occurred on Nov. 23 half a world away: the much-trumpeted “interim” agreement in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).
China, at the negotiating table in Geneva, was fully aware that the “interim” agreement was the product of months of back channel exchanges between Washington and Tehran.
Beijing knew beforehand that the easing of sanctions on Iran’s economy would restart the lavish investments in Iranian fields and pipelines that China needs to prosper, since, by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency, 90 percent of all Middle Eastern fossil fuel exports will flow to Asia.
With the opening in the Iranian energy sector, China knew it must also secure shipping routes to Iran. Long-established Chinese military strategy holds adamantly that it must control the routes through the first island chain, which includes the East China Sea and the Senkakus.
So a new Chinese global strategy appears to be unfolding: open Iran, exploit its oil fields, secure the shipping routes, impose Chinese authority, and do it all so swiftly on one day that the neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines — are left to hope that the U.S. will find a way to reverse the facts on the ground.