The American B-52 bombers that flew over the East China Sea on Tuesday made something of a mockery of Beijing’s newly-declared “air defence identification zone”.
To the outside world China looks weak and ineffectual right now, as it obviously cannot match its blustery rhetoric with an actual defence of the uninhabited Japanese-administered islands it claims as its territory.
But viewed from Beijing and the longer-term perspective of the country’s strategic planners, the establishment of the new zone is a masterstroke that will change the facts on the ground (or in this case the air) pretty quickly.
For a start, the US cannot keep flying bombers over the region and say they are part of “long-planned exercises” (as they claimed this week’s flyovers were).
Doing so would quickly lose impact as a statement of principle and evolve into needless provocation, especially in the eyes of the Chinese public, who draw most of their opinions on such matters from tightly controlled state media.
There are already signs that Beijing will portray its response to Japanese and American “incursions” as proof it is exercising maximum restraint in the face of outrageous incitement.
Since Japan’s strongest claim to the disputed island group comes from the fact it has administered them for many decades, China is hoping to assert its own overlapping track record of “administration”.
The next step in China’s game-plan will be to work on other countries in the region and around the world to cajole or intimidate them into at least tacitly recognising China’s sovereignty over the disputed airspace.
When Chinese diplomats and politicians sit down for discussions with their counterparts from other countries, they usually have a very short list of things they want from the other side.
With the big shiny promise of Chinese markets looming behind them, they usually demand recognition that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China and they ask for general statements about open markets and anti-protectionism.
From now on they will start asking other countries to force their airlines to identify themselves to Chinese authorities when passing through the disputed airspace, thereby implicitly acknowledging that the territory belongs to China.
The pressure will be much greater on individual airlines hoping to capitalise on the tens of millions of new Chinese tourists flooding out of the country every year.
When they cave they can always justify their compliance on safety grounds.
That was the explanation from Japan’s two largest airlines, which immediately agreed this week to provide Beijing with co-ordinates for all flights entering the disputed airspace.
They changed their minds three days later under pressure from the Japanese government and now say they will not comply with the Chinese demand.
For evidence of how successful Beijing’s tactics are, just look at Taiwan, which lost diplomatic ties with the Gambia this month, leaving it with the Vatican, Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, Swaziland and less than 20 Latin American and Pacific states as its friends.
In its territorial disputes with all of its neighbours, China’s big advantage is that it wants to change the status quo while its opponents are all trying to keep things pretty much as they are.
That means other countries in the region have to prepare for an infinite number of possible Chinese actions while Chinese strategists only have to design one clever manoeuvre at a time.
What we are witnessing is just the early stages of China’s abandonment of its long-held foreign policy of minding its own business as Chinese President Xi Jinping, one year into the job, turns his attention to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” outside the country’s current borders.
China’s leaders know that time and global trends are on their side as long as nothing goes disastrously wrong domestically and as long as they do not actually provoke a war with Japan, the US or any other country.
That is where the danger lies.
As one senior Asian diplomat told the FT this week, China may think it has pulled off a clever tactical manoeuvre but clearly nobody in Beijing has properly studied European history before the first world war.
As the world prepares to mark the centenary of the “war to end all wars”, China would be better off learning how that conflagration started rather than dreaming up clever ways to antagonise and scare its neighbours.
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