Guest Contributor at SAIS Washington
On November 23, China unilaterally and unexpectedly announced the formation of its first-ever ADIZ over the East China Sea and demanded that all aircraft file flight plans and communicate with Chinese authorities while flying through the area. The timing came after multiple provocations between China and Japan surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and only two weeks after China’s Third Plenum during which Xi Jinping attempted to further consolidate his power.
China’s declaration of the ADIZ seemed to be a safe move, as it mirrored Japan’s ADIZ which also extends well into contested territory. However, the US and Japan responded quickly by sending American B-52s and Japanese military aircraft into the area.
The Chinese did not react immediately and allowed them to pass unimpeded, which suggests that China was not prepared for the strong reaction. Only after several days and considerable domestic pressure did China send military aircraft to the contested area. This lack of a coherent response shows a serious miscalculation by the Chinese leadership.
The US opposition to the ADIZ is a strong statement, as it clarifies US intent to respond to China in its “Pivot to Asia.” China should be worried that other countries with which they have territorial disputes will be emboldened by the US’ demonstration in the East China Sea.
However, the conflict may present unlooked-for opportunities for the US. The Chinese leadership needs to appear strong and avoid losing legitimacy domestically, while it refrains from creating a serious military conflict. As a result, they may be willing to give meaningful alternative concessions to the US in exchange for brokering a deal that favors China in the East China Sea.
By convincing Japan to relinquish their claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and grant China legitimacy regarding their newly formed ADIZ, the US could attempt to convince China to: first, demarcate a revised 9-dashed line in the South China Sea which could avoid future armed conflict and protect shipping routes; second, get China to push North Korea hard on denuclearization; and third, negotiate long sought-after trade concessions.
Some have said that relinquishing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would amount to political seppuku (a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment) for the nationalistic Abe regime. However, I believe an extraordinarily attractive deal could outweigh the loss of the islands, even for nationalists. Some examples could be a 100% matching provision of oil obtained in the disputed area at cost, assurance of permanent Japanese access to trade through the South China Sea and/or significant assistance with the recovery from the Fukushima disaster, a subject that dominates Japanese media coverage.
With substantial Chinese concessions on other central issues to the US in Asia, the US could negotiate and partially fund a favorable deal. By brokering such a deal, the US could accomplish some key objectives of far larger global consequences than the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, while avoiding further escalation in the East China Sea.