Over the last couple of weeks, this blog has covered (here and here) the increasing tensions in the East China Sea relating to (and/or leading to) China’s declaration of a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This week, David A. Welch published an interesting new piece in Foreign Affairs.
Welch writes, in part:
The common wisdom, no less wise for being common, is that China declared an ADIZ in the belief that it would aid in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. Chinese leaders could have believed this for one of two reasons: first, they believed that an ADIZ signals or confers sovereign rights; or, second, they believed that declaring an ADIZ covering the disputed islands would enhance their bargaining position. The former is demonstrably wrong; if this is what they believed, they should immediately fire their international lawyers. The latter belief would only be justified if bargaining was taking place and if Washington and Tokyo could be cowed. This has proved demonstrably wrong, too, and if this is what they had in mind, they should fire their political analysts.
It is evident that China miscalculated. But China is not the only country that is worse off as a result. East Asia has suddenly become a more dangerous place.
It is unrealistic to expect China to walk back its ADIZ unilaterally. That would be a major embarrassment both for the Chinese military and for the regime, both internationally and domestically. But strident noncompliance represents an embarrassing loss of face for Beijing as well. It also reinforces Chinese misconceptions about the legal implications of an ADIZ. So too does South Korea’s tit-for-tat expansion of its own air defense identification zone, which will only further increase the dangers of inadvertent confrontation. By taking a hard line, China’s adversaries have put Beijing in an even bigger bind.
Sometimes when someone does something embarrassing in public, the smart thing to do is to pretend not to notice. Admittedly, this is now somewhat difficult; Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington have already reacted. But they can drop the subject publicly and start quietly arranging some rules of the road with Beijing, behind the scenes, that let it save face while operationally returning to the status quo ante.
What do you think?
Richard B. Eisenberg
Office of the General Counsel
U.S. Air Force