The combination of dictatorial powers’ growing strength and America’s increasing weakness is the perfect formula for destabilizing behavior by bad actors in the world. This is all too often the result of what strategists call “provocative weakness” – where those bad actors believe that they can advance their aggressive interest with less likelihood of serious resistance by the United States or its allies.
As China has grown economically and has pursued its double-digit annual increases in its military buildup for about two decades, it has begun to flex its muscles in its East Asian neighborhood. It is claiming almost the entire territory of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It pursues a policy of “shard diplomacy,” where it alleges that wherever a shard of an antique China plate or vase is discovered in any neighboring territory, that that territory once belonged to China and therefore still belongs to China. It has been claiming island territories that are under the control of neighboring countries, such as Japan and the Philippines.
And now, it has just announced the establishment of an “Air-Defense Identification Zone” covering the larger part of the East China Sea. The ADIZ includes the airspace over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands that are currently controlled by Japan, as well as part of the Leodo reef in the Yellow Sea that is controlled by South Korea. China is requiring that foreign aircraft obtain permission to enter this airspace, and it reserves the right to take military action against intruders.
Air Defense Identification Zones have no basis in international law, and are invariably set up by individual nations unilaterally. In this case, China’s ADIZ overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Fortunately, the United States has not permitted this zone to be activated without challenge. The Defense Department sent two B-52 bombers precisely into this zone and over the disputed islands without following Beijing’s instructions that it should seek permission in advance.
Although the bombers were unarmed and were part of what Pentagon officials described as a long-planned training exercise, their flight to this zone represents one comforting continuity in American defense policy – namely, America’s longstanding commitment to freedom of the seas and freedom to navigate in international airspace.
Again, fortunately, China did not choose to intercept these bombers. But the fact that it was necessary to send them on this mission represents a deterioration in China’s perception of the credibility of America’s deterrent forces. If that credibility erodes further, and Beijing becomes ever more emboldened in its expansionism to challenge the United States and our allies in the region (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan), the chances of military confrontation escalating to the use of force increases commensurately.
While the administration is to be commended for not abandoning a time-honored policy of protecting air and sea-based navigation, it should recognize the latest Chinese action for what it is: a warning that weakness is less likely to guarantee peace than strength.