By J.G. Collins
NEW YORK (November 24th)- On November 17, Newsweek carried a story with the headline, “Obama’s Asia Pivot Fails to Materialize”. Newsweek’s Benny Avni challenged, “What has the ballyhooed pivot actually changed? Does the policy really mean Washington will pay more attention to Asia in the future? Or is it an escape hatch designed to further lower America’s involvement in traditional hot spots, especially in the Middle East?”
The Newsweek piece apparently piqued the interest of the White House because, by Wednesday of that week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated the commitment and promised a trip to Asia by the president in April.
But within 72 hours of the White House attempt to reassure America’s allies in Asia that our purported “pivot” toward the region was, indeed, a serious and sincere change in US foreign policy, China delivered a slap across the president’s face with a pair of folded gloves: it declared air defense rights over most of the East China Sea.
The Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, includes Japan’s Senkaku islands, which have been in dispute among Japan, China and Taiwan for decades. In recent years, though, China has escalated the dispute considerably, after Japan took the step of buying the three island Senakaku chain from its Japanese inhabitants to further legitimize its claim.
Earlier this fall, the belligerent rhetoric escalated, with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe saying it would shoot down any foreign aircraft, including drones, if they entered Japanese airspace. A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman responded with the extraordinarily belligerent claim that China would view such an act as “a severe provocation to China and an act of war”
While China’s effort to alter the status quo by declaring the East China Sea ADIZ is undoubtedly related to possible undersea oil and gas reserves in the region, we suspect those considerations are secondary to China’s primary objective: obtaining control of vital Pacific sea lanes.
We think that China’s new ADIZ is effectively a “trial balloon”; that is, a preliminary effort to measure the world – and particularly the United States’ – reaction to an innocuous, almost benign, play to reset the status quo and to obtain control over the East China Sea. Left unchallenged, over time the new ADIZ will tend to legitimize China’s territorial claims over not only the Senkaku Islands, but the sea lanes of the East China Sea. China’s hegemony would become the new status quo.
Chinese control of the East China Sea would, of itself, endanger American and allied interests in the region. But China made clear that it plans to create other ADIZ as it sees fit. That clearly opens the door to a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea.
If the United States accepts a Chinese ADIZ in the East China Sea, it will only be a matter of time before China attempts a similar move in the South China Sea and with even greater strategic and economic consequences. China has said it will establish such zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”
As with its claim over Japan’s Senkaku Islands, China also disputes The Philippines’ sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the southern half of the South China Sea. And as it has with the East China Sea ADIZ, China could assert a South China Sea ADIZ, asserting a claim over the Spratly Islands as the southernmost border of the zone.
Nearly a third of the world’s oil and more than half of all liquefied natural gas flows through the South China Sea from the Gulf. Crude oil refined in Indonesia is shipped to other Asian nations – including China, Japan, and South Korea — as aviation jet fuel, gasoline, motor oil and other petroleum products. Were China to successfully assert an ADIZ and achieve hegemony over the South China Sea, America’s allies in Asia would suffer intolerable Chinese control over the free-flow of oil and petroleum products.
The United States, South Korea, The Philippines and our other allies in Asia cannot acquiesce to China’s aggressive claims of “control” over the airspace of the East China Sea. Doing so would turn it – and, inevitably, the South China Sea– into a Chinese lake, giving China dominion and control over the energy supplies of our closest allies in the region.
In 1990, after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, George H. W. Bush recognized the threat to the world’s oil supply if Saddam shifted his forces west and invaded Saudi Arabia. Answering a question from a reporter as to any military plans he might have, President Bush said,
“I’m not going to discuss what we’re doing in terms of moving of forces, anything of that nature. But I view it very seriously…. there are an awful lot of countries that are in total accord (with the view that Iraq should be contained). They are staunch friends and allies, and we will be working with them all for collective action…. This will not stand. This will not stand…”
China’s efforts to alter the regional balance of power in the Pacific are an existential threat to the economy and security of America and our Asian allies. This should not stand.
UPDATE: On Sunday, Defense Secretary Hagel said that the United States would not alter any of its operations in deference to the China’s East China Sea ADIZ. In response, China’s Ministry of Defense said, “We demand the U.S. side to earnestly respect China’s national security,stop making irresponsible remarks for China’s setup of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone and make concrete efforts for the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
UPDATE 2: The South China Morning Post reported that China’s consulate in Tokyo had requested Chinese nationals in Japan to register with them in case of “a major unexpected emergency”.
J.G. Collins is the managing director of The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy
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