24 May 2019
China feels increasingly compelled to upgrade its security strategy to help safeguard its interests. Photo: Bloomberg
China feels increasingly compelled to upgrade its security strategy to help safeguard its interests. Photo: Bloomberg

WEEKENDER: China air zone exposes dilemma in US pivot

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden capped his two-day trip to Beijing by reaffirming Washington’s commitment to building a candid relationship with China, despite geopolitical tensions triggered by Beijing’s new air defense zone.

Addressing the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing Thursday before flying to Seoul, he admitted there are “real” differences between the two countries, but added “there’s nothing inevitable about a conflict with China.”

The only path to “mutual benefit and growth,” he said, was “through tangible, practical cooperation and managing our differences effectively. We’ve not tried this before.”

If Biden had hoped that his trip to Beijing — part of his swing through the region — would foster a “new great-power relationship” with China, he has cause for disappointment and satisfaction.

When President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama met in the summer, their talks reflected the general focus on dialogue and cooperation between the two major powers. Those qualities remain largely intact but the brewing row over China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) has cast a long shadow over their relationship.

True, Biden’s apparent failure to persuade Beijing to withdraw the zone did not mean the trip turned out for the worse. It is unclear, however, whether Beijing will respond positively to Biden’s not-so-subtle message for China to exercise restraint in the enforcement of its rules in the zone.

With just months to go before the 35th anniversary of the normalization of China-U.S. ties, Biden sought to frame the bilateral relationship in a longer perspective. In talks with Premier Li Keqiang, he stressed the importance of getting their relationship right. “If we get it right, the outcome for our children and grandchildren can be profoundly positive,” he said.

But the row was a sharp reminder to Biden of the geopolitical sensitivity and complexity of the Sino-U.S. relationship.

In his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before the Beijing leg, Biden came under pressure from Tokyo to issue a joint call for China to ditch the identification zone.

Although Biden maintained the United States was “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” he stopped short of publicly calling for China’s immediate withdrawal of the zone, as Tokyo had hoped.

The U.S. and Japan also appear to have agreed to disagree on whether airlines should comply with the Chinese demand to file flight plans when their aircraft intend to transit the new defense zone.

If Xi’s ADIZ venture was a calculated move to test Washington’s China policy in terms of the intricate tripartite relationship with Japan, he succeeded. Washington did not seem to be prepared to side with Japan to take a tough stand on the ADIZ at the risk of derailing its relationship with China.

Beijing will, however, make a big mistake if it misinterprets Washington’s cautious approach over the dispute as tacit approval of China’s attempt to challenge the U.S. role in the region.

China’s “unilateral” defense zone move gives convenient credence to China skeptics who argue that a rising China could become a troublemaker in the region and the world.

China has been likened by some Western media and analysts to a pre-first world war Germany seeking to challenge British naval supremacy, resulting in a stronger British-French alliance.

Some analysts have warned that if the United States does not stop China’s ADIZ plan in the East China Sea, China will declare another zone in the South China Sea, where its claims of sovereignty to certain islands have run into conflict with neighboring countries.

Despite the strong diplomatic repercussions, it would not be surprising to see Beijing do so soon.

The ADIZ was announced shortly after the Communist Party’s third Central Committee plenum, during which the go-ahead was given for a top-level national security committee said to be modeled on the U.S. National Security Council and chaired by Xi.

The chain of developments is being read as the latest signal that China under the leadership of Xi is moving towards a strong authoritarian state aspiring to have a bigger say in international affairs.

With its growing economic might and interests, China feels increasingly compelled to upgrade its security strategy to help safeguard its interests.

Set against that background, some analysts have predicted that one major challenge for the U.S.-China relationship will be whether Beijing will continue to accommodate, if not allow, a massive U.S. military presence in the region.

With his hands tied by domestic politics, Obama faces a growing dilemma in his “pivot” towards Asia as manifested in the row over China’s defense zone. Despite jitters among its allies in the region, Washington understands it cannot possibly stop China from setting up its ADIZs. The name of the new security game is to manage the differences and minimize the risks.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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