Beijing’s actions are a not-so-subtle reminder that a distracted, declining U.S. lives far away, while China lives right next door.
As most in the United States distracted themselves with roast turkey, football, and the retail madness called Black Friday this past Thanksgiving holiday, a high-stakes game of geopolitical cat-and-mouse is playing out in the skies above the disputed Senkaku Islands between China, the U.S. and Japan. Charitably described by Wikipedia as “five uninhabited islets and three rocks,” the drama surrounding the Senkaku, or the Diaoyu — as China refers to them — is just the latest in a series of maritime disputes in the region.
Soft militarization is the key here, because while no overt military pressure has yet been placed on any of China’s neighbors, the staking out of maritime territory, and in the current case of the Senkakus, the unilateral imposition of what is known as an ‘air-defense identification zone’ or ADIZ for short by China, nonetheless shapes the diplomatic context in which these disputes are discussed. They inform Beijing’s neighbors that China is quite serious about pursuing its claims to disputed territory and gently reminds them that without the U.S. to back them up, China is far-and-away the most dominant military power in the region.
Indeed, like a mobster casually informing a shopkeeper that it would be a pity if something happened to his or her store while the cops, meaning the U.S., weren’t around, Beijing’s actions are a not-so-subtle reminder that an ever-fickle U.S. is a distracted, declining hegemon that lives far away, while Beijing, China’s leaders seem to be pointedly saying, is right next door. Beijing’s message is clear: do you – meaning China’s neighbors – really want to make an issue out of these disputed islands and therefore, an enemy out of us? The issue is thus not so much the islands themselves, although a wealth of undersea minerals, oil, and gas may be present in the seas surrounding them, but the readiness with which Pacific Asia’s other states are willing to cede regional authority to Beijing without a shot being fired.
By softly militarizing these disputes, China’s leaders are giving Japan, South Korea, and all its other neighbors the opportunity to declare their allegiance in the coming deadly-serious contest for supremacy in East Asia between a rising China and a still powerful, though declining, America. But unfortunately for Beijing, it would appear that hardline tactics, no matter how softly implemented, are having the opposite effect by so unnerving China’s neighbors that they are being driven even further into Washington’s camp, and so forcing a war-weary Uncle Sam to respond to China’s maritime provocations.
Respond Washington has. Almost immediately after China’s declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea, the Pentagon sent two unarmed B-52 bombers on a casual stroll through it without notifying China first, effectively daring the Chinese to challenge them. The bombers, explained the Pentagon, were long-scheduled to go through the region to carry out prearranged military exercises, but no one, least of all China, was fooled. The aerial demonstration by Washington, in turn, gave the South Koreans and the Japanese the courage to flout China’s ADIZ declaration, forcing China to send aloft fighters to identify and challenge any foreign aircraft, both civilian and military, it finds flying through its newly-declared aerial territory lest it look weak and lose face.
That an authoritarian state like China, ruled by an iron-fisted Communist Party that brooks no challenge to its continued rule at home, should be concerned over face and the fate of some barren rocks in the East China and South China Seas, where China has several other maritime disputes with nearly all its major neighbors in Southeast Asia, is surprising. Until one realizes that ever since Beijing abandoned communism as an organizing ideology in the 1980s and adopted state-led, capitalist development, it has instead used nationalism as cover for this ideological change. As a consequence, to distract from problems associated with capitalist growth – corruption, a ravaged environment, growing inequality, and a propertied middle class newly interested in protecting its interests and advancing its rights – nationalism has become the ‘go to’ tool for the Communist Party.
The problem with this strategy, as any historian of pre-First-World-War Europe could point out, is that nationalism is like the proverbial genie in a bottle that once unleashed is incredibly difficult to contain. Indeed, the acceptance of right-wing nationalism into the realm of acceptable political discourse can quickly overturn the entire existing domestic political order. Here, moderate politicians who merely use nationalist rhetoric as a political stratagem aimed at securing a margin of extra support can find themselves outflanked by those willing to be more extreme in both their rhetoric and policies. Eventually, if this process continues, it becomes impossible to distinguish the moderates, if any are left, from the fanatical, hardline true-believers who espouse the most radical nationalist notions.
This danger is compounded even further when a country’s nationalist impulse inflames and feeds fear and loathing in others, as China seems to be doing not only vis-à-vis Japan, but also Vietnam, the Philippines, and India. These countries, like France, Russia, and Britain prior to the First World War, are in turn not standing still in the face of rising Chinese nationalism, military expansion, and increasingly provocative moves along their long mutual borders. They, too, are arming and calling upon assistance from the U.S. and each other to help contain a China that may hope, wrongly it so far seems, to pick off their resistance to Chinese dominance one-by-one.
Left to its own devices, this internal-external dynamic can lead to catastrophe, as Europeans twice discovered to their dismay in the last century. Then, unification and growth of a major power, Germany, created massive instability in the existing European balance-of-power system that led to an increasingly volatile, war-prone international environment that was powered by a nightmarish mix of tight bi-polar alliances, arms races, nationalism, and international crises over territory and prestige. This all led to a war that, though avoidable, was all but inevitable. Looking back, we know how that horror show ended. Let’s hope the Chinese, and everyone else bordering the Pacific, does too.