Flying two B-52s over the East China Sea, through international airspace over which China has just declared control, was a nice symbolical gesture. But it is an inadequate response to the People’s Republic’s aggression, which demands more action, and less talk, from the Obama administration.
China’s move is both the most aggressive it has made in asserting its ambitions in the Pacific and the most directly relevant to the United States. China’s more well-known ambitions are in the islands and waters of the South China Sea, a crucial shipping lane and a region endowed with huge mineral and oil-and-gas deposits. The crux of that particular claim is the Senkaku Islands; the U.S. is bound by our pact with Japan to defend its right to administer them.
China’s new control zone encompasses the air over the Senkakus, but more important, it impinges on the right of Americans (and all other nations) to travel unimpeded over the East China Sea. The U.S. and Japan maintain similar zones off their coasts but ask only that planes planning to cross their landmasses identify themselves. China now insists that all aircraft passing through the zone, wherever they intend to go, announce themselves. This is a hegemonic demand — constituting a zone of control, not defense.
The surrounding nations, like the U.S., have refused to recognize this new demand, but these are pro forma protests. Their airlines have already agreed to identify themselves when entering the newly colonized air zone, and American airlines are likely to follow suit.
One previously scheduled sortie of two ancient unarmed bombers is, in other words, all that separates the reaction so far of the world’s superpower from that of the Philippines.
There needs to be both a more substantial immediate response and a long-term correction. Secretary Hagel has said that military aircraft will ignore the rule, but he would do well to honor the English-class dictum to show, not tell. The U.S. should invite Japan to join it in military sorties through the international air space China just tried to snatch, and begin frequent, overwhelming flights of top American military aircraft. It could also volunteer to escort U.S. airliners as they fly through the airspace without identifying themselves. For now, the State Department has been so mealymouthed as to claim it is unsure whether the demands apply to civil and commercial flight.
Despite the Obama administration’s famous pivot to Asia, and the minor military reinforcements in the area that has entailed, the U.S. is on track to retreat from the region. Our power has shrunk relative to a rapidly strengthening China, and our military’s current ten-year trajectory will leave it incapable of enforcing security in the western Pacific. No single military shift or acquisition now will change that, but reforming and fully funding our military can reverse the course over time and allow us to maintain free movement in the region.
Our president appears to be fine with the planned decline, and his treatment of some allies in the region has betrayed this. The Obama administration refused to sell F-22s, the world’s finest fighters by far, to Japan, citing an easily changed rule against exporting them. It is not an exaggeration to say the Chinese may have found their new zone impractical if they knew Japan could field the fighters we refused to provide.
The world, and the United States, will regret kowtowing today. In the short term, China’s move most directly threatens the Japanese, by impeding on the mainland’s defensive zone and exerting control over the Senkakus’ airspace. The risk of confrontation between Japan and China has escalated sharply, and the Japanese grow militarily stronger and more intolerant of China’s hegemonic ambitions every day. Confidence that the U.S. will back Japan strongly in a clash will make it less likely, not more.
In the long term, ceding the Pacific as a sphere of influence to China will be a catastrophe for global security — especially if it coincides with ceding Eastern Europe to Russia or the Middle East to Iran. China cannot dominate the region now, but the past five years have given it reason to believe it will have the chance in the next five or ten. Preventing such an outcome means a more robust stance than we now have and a stronger military than we now plan.
Without them, the supine posture we assumed in the wake of China’s latest power grab may become a permanent one.