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Poking and prodding in the East China Sea

Poking and prodding in the East China Sea
Published 27 Nov 2013 

Beijing's announcement of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea (ECS) last week is a troubling development. It illustrates the most dangerous aspect of China's economic and geopolitical rise: the potential for miscalculation.

At the Australian Institute of International Affairs National Conference in Canberra last Thursday, Hugh White and Linda Jakobson resumed their debate on the implications of China's rise. The Australian strategic and foreign policy community will require no introduction to this tremendously important and productive discussion.

Whilst Hugh and Linda differ in their assessment of the likelihood of conflict, they agree that, regardless of the security model that emerges in East Asia, the path to that end-state will be punctuated by numerous episodes of friction between China and the US. Linda referred to this last week as some 'poking and prodding' along the way.

It is this 'poking and prodding' that is most troublesome for me, and why Beijing's unilateral announcement last week is so concerning.[fold]

One of the many reasons for the relative stability of the later Cold War era was the understanding that developed between the two major rivals. The US and Soviet Union learned the rules of the game; they developed lines of communication, protocols, and boundaries to avoid being drawn, inadvertently, into catastrophic conflict.

These rules have yet to be established between China and the US.

I had the pleasure of working under Charles Glaser at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in DC. Like Hugh White, Charlie took the commendable step of elevating the geopolitical implications of China's rise to the forefront of strategic and foreign policy debate.

Charlie's particular brand of 'nuanced' realism generated a more optimistic projection of potential developments. He argued that, in the case of China and the US, the typical structural forces that propel major powers toward conflict are, in fact, weak. It is, rather, a collection of 'secondary disputes', particularly in North Asia, that present the most likely catalyst for confrontation.

These dangers, Charlie argues, are within the capacity of China and the US to manage, but a deep mutual understanding based on well-established protocols and boundaries (the rules of the game) is vitally important. At this most dangerous time, however, these rules have yet to be written.

Which brings us to Beijing's announcement last week. On face value, the establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the ECS seems unnecessarily provocative. 'This unilateral action', warned Secretary John Kerry, 'constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea. Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident.'

But of course, any expansion or 'poking and prodding' by China will, by definition, challenge the status quo. An effort to regulate freedom of lawful uses of airspace underwritten by the threat of military response is a most unwise step. But perhaps unwise too is the form of words establishing the 'status quo' in the ECS as a firm commitment.

Kerry is correct: the establishment of an ADIZ can only increase the tension and risk of miscalculation in dealing with this evolving relationship. But presenting an immovable object to the irresistible force of China's geopolitical rise is no way of advancing the accommodation that Hugh and Charlie deem necessary.

The rules of the game should be an instrument to mitigate the risk of escalation of secondary disputes into a shooting war. This means developing conflict-avoidance mechanisms similar to those the US and Soviet Union used during the Cold War.

Both Charlie and Hugh prescribe an accommodation of China's expanding geopolitical role in Asia; Charlie through a reassessment of the Taiwan commitment and Hugh through his 'concert of Asia' construct. Linda's view is of a China whose upward trajectory remains dependent on American primacy in Asia. This is a hope I share; but as Hugh often reminds us, hope is not a strategy.

Whether one of these scenarios comes to pass (or indeed another), the constant will be the requirement for a careful crafting of the rules of the game.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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