The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Pivot to Asia Mixed Messages From Washington Confuse Allies

Vice President Biden tried to diffuse tension in East Asia on a visit to Japan Tuesday, reiterating that the US is “deeply concerned” by China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

Back in Washington, just before Biden landed in Tokyo, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki went a step beyond and specifically called on Beijing to “rescind” the ADIZ: “The fact that China’s announcement has caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents only further underscores the validity of concerns and the need for China to rescind the procedures.”

That message might have been a little strong and a little premature. No other US government statement has been so explicit, and today State tried to distance itself from the FAA’s instruction that American airlines obey China’s new rules. The FAA, a division of the US government, issued what is called a Notice to Airmen (which is an order that civilian airline pilots are required to follow) to submit flight plans and communicate with the Chinese authorities as China requested. Japan voiced some confusion and disagreement, and did not make the same order to its civilian airliners; Ms. Psaki tried to change tack in a press conference yesterday, saying that the US government had not ordered airlines to obey China’s rules, and that military flights within China’s ADIZ would continue. Confused observers wondered if, in effect, the US had caved.

Washington needs to get its ducks in a row. The different branches of the US government can’t be sending out mixed messages. Our allies in Asia are watching very closely to gauge the depth of the US commitment to stability in Asia. Diplomatic missteps, confusion, mixed messages, and incompetence will only further convince our allies that the US ship has sailed.

China-air-defense-ID-zone

Published on December 3, 2013 2:02 pm
  • Andrew Allison

    Our Keystone Cops “Executive” Branch is in need of adult supervision!

  • Thirdsyphon

    On my reading, it’s probably the FAA that’s out of alignment with the Administration’s overall policy. The decision to deploy P-8s to the region and conduct unannounced flights through the ADIZ using B-52s had to have come from either the Secretary of Defense or the President, and my guess is the latter. Which is not to say that I think the FAA was wrong. Confronting China’s military is a job that needs to be done, but it’s not one that the Pentagon can decently outsource to civilian commercial pilots and their passengers.

    • Andrew Allison

      Acceding to illegitimate Chinese demands is what’s wrong. It needs to be made clear to the PLA that any threat to civilian aircraft flying in international airspace will be met with an extremely prejudicial response.

      • Thirdsyphon

        I think that’s clear enough. But Japan’s avaition authorities went too far, I think, in affirmatively directing their civilian airliners to defy the Chinese military’s directives. It’s inappropriate to force civilians to have to choose between confronting a foreign nation’s air defenses and intentionally violating their own domestic law.

        • f1b0nacc1

          What happened here, however, is that the FAA issued guidelines that undercut administration policy. If the airlines themselves issued guidelines to their pilots, I might agree with your point, but that isn’t what went on.
          Leave it to this administration to (finally) come up with a useful policy, then screw up the implementation!

          • Thirdsyphon

            I half-agree with you. The FAA basically had 3 options here: 1) Direct (or merely advise) US airliners to comply with China’s demands when crossing through the ADIZ; 2) Direct (or merely advise) them *not* to; or 3) Give no guidance on the subject at all, and decline to provide any when asked.
            Option 1 looks weak, I’ll grant you, but Option 3 would have looked equally weak for different reasons. Both sets of talking points almost write themselves. You’ve seen the Option 1 critique; Option 3 would be along the lines of “On China ADIZ Outrage, Obama ducks and votes ‘Present.’”
            Both of those are problematic in policy terms. Option 1 risks emboldening China, whereas Option 3 might endanger innocent lives.
            Both options suck, but both are still preferable, in my view, to Option 2. We do not fight our wars with civilians.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Option 4: Point out that the US has no intention whatsoever of respecting a ‘rogue’ ADIZ, take steps to demonstrate this (we have done so), and say NOTHING else. Let the airlines draw their own conclusions. If necessary, a few private conversations with the airlines (judiciously leaked to Obama’s tame media) to the effect that the US would prefer to see non-compliance with the Chinese might be useful.
            The worst Option was the one we chose….Defy the Chinese with B-52s, then have another branch of the same government cave to them with the airlines….that was simply stupid.
            As was once said by a far wiser man than I, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna”

          • Thirdsyphon

            We’ve done more than just defy China with B-52s. We’ve also taken the opportunity to move a new wing of specialized antisubmarine warplanes into the area, with great public fanfare. If tensions increase (they seem to be gradually declining), I would not be surprised to see Prime-Minister Abe unveil an official proposal in the Japanese Diet to amend Japan’s postwar constitution to remove its longstanding blocks and limitations on Japanese military spending. If that happens, then China, like Japan before them, will have cause to rue the day that they gratuitously awakened a sleeping giant.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Sending P-8s (which are updated replacements for the P-3Cs that have been in use in the area for decades, so they represent virtually no change in the status quo) is largely symbolic, just as the B-52s were. Quietly encouraging outright defiance by airliners would have put some teeth in it. Yes, civilian lives would be risked, but the risk is small, as the Chinese would have to weigh the consequences of shooting down civilians over open ocean. KAL007 was a huge defeat for the Soviets, and they were far, far more formidable in that time than the Chinese are now. As for putting civilians at risk, power-politics ain’t beanbag…
            And yes, the Japanese will likely arm further, but they represent a round-off error in the balance of power in the region…it is the US that truly amtters, and the US is clearly in disarray. The Chinese may yet take the islands, this is only the opening gambit, and they have plenty of time…

          • Thirdsyphon

            I think you remember the KAL007 incident a little differently than I do.

            There was never an intentional plan, on anyone’s part, to violate Soviet airspace, which is what KAL007 indisputably did, twice, due to pilot error. None of this excuses the Soviet atrocity of shooting down a defenseless civilian airliner, but it does serve to explain, in my mind at least, why I have never, until now, heard the KAL007 incident described as anything other than a tragedy.

            Did it make the Soviet regime look bloodthirsty and vicious in the eyes of the world? Undeniably. But it’s harder to see what good the resulting diplomatic confrontation over this incident did for anyone, much less how it could be regarded as a “huge defeat” for the Soviets, since their human rights reputation was already in tatters, a deficiency about which their regime could not have possibly cared any less.

            China is weaker militarily relative to the U.S. than the Soviets were 20 years ago; but economically they’re immeasurably stronger. It’s unlikely that a nuclear exchange would result from the downing of a civilian aircraft over the ADIZ, but I put the likelihood of mutual economic sanctions resulting from this and creating a bilateral (and then global) Second Great Depression at about 50%. And China’s military commanders seem no more likely to count the cost of such an outcome than the USSR’s were, all those years ago.

            If there’s going to be a skirmish between the U.S. and China over the Senkaku Islands, I’d prefer that it take the form of a military engagement between U.S. and Chinese warplanes than that of an atrocity committed against defenseless civilians at the cost of hundreds of lives.

            If we start relishing the prospect of sacrificing those lives for the propaganda value that it will create, it’s hard to imagine what we stand to “win” as a people.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Who suggested that KAL007 was intentionally sent anywhere? My point was that trigger-happy Chinese generals (and there are far too many) are likely to be chastened by what happened to the Soviets as a result of their behavior (which was at least possible to rationalize if you accept that they didn’t know it was an accident), and thus far less likely to create a stink over airliners ignoring their rogue ADIZ.
            As for the risk of conflict, you are ignoring that the Chinese are far, far, far more vulnerable here than we are. Even with lean inventories, the US could withstand trade disruption for some time without catastrophic (though certainly unpleasant) results, while the Chinese would seem tens of millions lose their work overnight as factories closed. Since the PRC’s govt bases it’s legitimacy entirely upon their ability to provide prosperity, creating an instant depression over a group of rocky islands would be devastating for them. This is unquestionably enough of a disincentive for them to seriously reconsider comitting murder in the skies.
            Finally as to the question of using civilians as pawns in this amoral game. The United States is supposed to be standing up for the principle of freedom of movement and international law (remember that the Law of the Sea treat, a treaty that China is a signatory to, forbids this sort of thing), which is certainly an issue worth fighting for. If you believe that by tacitly recognizing the ADIZ out of some sort of misguided fear that the Chinese will fire on airliners you can then later object to these claims without such dangers, you are deluding yourself. Like it or not, you defeat such claims by defeating them, not by caving to them. This salami-slicing tactic is one that the Chinese have used in the past (they in fact brag about it), and must be stopped before it provides the basis for a more substantial claim later.

          • Thirdsyphon

            Your analysis of China’s objective, overall risk matrix sounds accurate; but if Chinese policy was always guided by reason, the ADIZ would not have been established in the first place.

            It’s certainly true that creeping, incremental land claims can accrue over time into set precedent, if left unopposed; and it *may* be true that there’s substantial military and economic value to be gained by controlling these small islands; but it is also apparent that China is ultimately in a position to make these claims, let alone benefit from them, because of its economic strength.

            An economic collapse would put a swift end to that strength, and an even swifter end to China’s hopes for hegemonic dominance over the region.

            Objectively, the Senkakus aren’t worth the risks that China is running to obtain them; but I suspect that China’s leadership is capable of acting irrationally where national pride is at issue, particularly in conflicts with Japan. (The same analysis applies, incidentally, to Japan).

            Once the military issue is settled (and for the moment, barring further Chinese action, it has been), the U.S. has almost nothing to gain from further argument over the ADIZ. The right of the U.S. to conduct military overflight through the ADIZ will soon become a well -established precedent of its own, making any future declarations by China even harder to justify or enforce.

      • AD_Rtr_OS

        KAL-007!

    • submandave

      All the FAA had to do was provide notice that the PRC made the claim. US air carriers are professionals who want to keep their planes flying safe and on-time. They will re-route and/or file plans as they feel necessary for the continued operation of their aircraft. But the FAA, as a government agency, should not be mandating recognition of an illegitimate claim.

      If Mexico all of the sudden started laying claim to an ADIZ over Aztlan I can guaran-damn-tee you the FAA would’t be telling US carriers to file flight plans with Mexico before flying into San Diego.

      • Thirdsyphon

        Apples to oranges. The Senkaku Islands aren’t Tempe, Arizona. But I take your point. The FAA probably should have acted exactly as you suggest.

        • submandave

          I was not making an equivocation, but using an obvious example of an inappropriate response to an illegitimate claim to illustrate a principle. The PRC has a bad habit of “finding” ancient maps with areas given Chinese names and then using it as a basis for expansion. Google “Scarborough Model” to see exactly what the PRC is trying to do with the Senkakus. (http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/learning-the-lessons-scarborough-reef-9442)

          • Thirdsyphon

            The link, alas, failed to work; and Googling “Scarborough Model” yields a wealth of links to the Scarborough Model Railroad Club, whose exploits, though admittedly adorable, are irrelevant to the matter at hand.

            Googling Scarborough *Shoal*, on the other hand, did the trick. .. and I’ll admit that China’s habit of digging up old maps that purportedly prove their claim to those uninhabitable rocks is immeasurably more obnoxious than the tactic employed by the Phillipines, which declined to make an equally ridiculous claim about King Phillip and the Treaty of Paris in favor of simply demanding them.

            What China is trying to materially accomplish by claiming *any* of these features (not all of them can even be characterized as islands) still eludes me. . . unless they’re acting as part of a guerilla marketing campaign by U.S. defense contractors to sell military hardware to China’s neighbors, in which case: job well done.

          • submandave

            China’s interest in the Senkakus, in particular, is three-fold.

            First, around 1970 surveys indicated large potential deposits of natural gas under the sea floor in this area. “Coincidentally,” the PRC’s first claims over the islands was made in 1972, after the US transferred sovereignty of Okinawa (and associated islands) back to Japan. Japan has offered joint development agreements, but the PRC has rebuffed these, and even engaged in illegal cross-drilling efforts (putting the platform in international waters but drilling on the diagonal into another country’s EEZ).

            Second, control and administration of the Senkakus both enhances the PRC’s security position in the East China Sea, as well as affords it better access to the Pacific Ocean beyond what is called the First Island Chain (basically the Ryukyus).

            Third, it places them in a better military-political position vis-a-vis Taiwan and unification. Since Taiwan has also made a claim to the islands and the PRC position is that Taiwan is part of China, PRC control over the islands enhances their One China policy. Also, a recognized claim over the islands would help legitimize area denial efforts in the event of tensions between PRC and Taiwan.

          • submandave

            In general, all these efforts are part of Chinese hegemony and regional dominance. Just look up China nine dash line to see their obviously illegitimate claim that basically treats the entire South China Sea as internal waters.

  • Anthony

    “The U.S. ship has sailed” WRM…

  • Kavanna

    This must be that “smart diplomacy” we were assured of in 2008.

    The implosion of US influence in Asia has been slower than in the Middle East. But it is nonetheless real. The Chinese would not be so increasingly bold in their testing of American and US-friendly countries’ seriousness, if US influence were not imploding. If the US shows consistent firmness at this point, the likelihood of a confrontation down the road will be reduced. But I’m not hopeful about the clowns in the administration.

    The wreckage that Obama has created since 2009 in both the Middle East and in Asia is stunning. If this had happened under a Republican president … never mind.

    • AD_Rtr_OS

      At least Wilson had a medical excuse.

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    Is there room under that bus for Jen?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It would be deeply unwise to trust Obama to have your back, when your nation and your citizens lives depend on you making smart choices.