Absolute coherence when it comes foreign policy is a rare thing. International relations will forever be a mix of principles, interests, circumstances, and necessities. But recognition of that fact doesn’t mean one has to jump to the opposite conclusion that foreign policy is simply a grab bag of decisions, lacking any coherence whatsoever. But, more and more, this appears to be the case when it comes to the Obama administration’s so-called “pivot” to Asia.
The latest example has been the administration’s response to the Nov. 23 announcement by China that it was establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a huge expanse of the East China Sea, including over the Japanese administered Senkaku islets. In doing so, Beijing announced that it expected all commercial and military aircraft flying into zone to provide it with advanced warning about flight plans, be constantly available for contact by Chinese authorities and maintain clear identification procedures while passing through the ADIZ. Failure to follow any of these rules, the Chinese said, would elicit “defensive emergency measures.”
In response, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were quick to condemn the Chinese decision and, to its credit, the administration then ordered a flight of B-52s through the ADIZ that ignored Chinese requirements. But, after having taken one step forward, the administration then took a step back when, this past Friday, the State Department told America’s commercial airlines that they should go ahead and abide by China’s ADIZ rules.
On the one hand, as any number of Chinese apologists have pointed out, China is within its rights in establishing an ADIZ, with U.S., Japan, and some other 18 countries having already done so. In short, it’s an accepted practice to create such zones. But what’s not common is Beijing’s insistence on advance notice for aircraft that are just passing through the zone and not headed to mainland China itself. (In the case of the US ADIZ, the US doesn’t require flight plans for planes that are not going to land in the United States.) Moreover, the shape and scale of China’s ADIZ is way out proportion to the object of ensuring flight safety and homeland security. One only has to compare the American ADIZ with China’s to see this point graphically:
State’s advice to U.S. airlines to follow China’s demands of course is intended to avoid any chance that an American passenger airline would find itself in a face-off with a Chinese jet fighter. And, undoubtedly, animating the department’s guidance is the memory of Korean Air Lines flight 007—a passenger plane shot down by a Soviet fighter as it inadvertently wandered into the restricted airspace of the Kamchatka Peninsula, resulting in the murder of 269 on board.
But such concern comes at a price. As the shape of China’s new ADIZ suggests, the sudden, unilateral decision to create the zone is designed to create the conditions for establishing Chinese claims of sovereignty over the Senkaku and surrounding waters and airspace. Once foreign aircraft, especially American aircraft, accept Chinese government rules for the ADIZ, the practice itself will become a precedent for China to assert that it is already exercising an element of sovereignty in this contested area. Instead of tamping down the dispute, Washington will, whatever its intentions, be giving credence to Beijing’s case. Suggesting, as one senior official did to the New York Times, that Federal Aviation Administration guidance for civilian passenger and cargo planes to identify themselves to China when entering the zone, does not “constitute any acceptance or recognition of this” is simply wrong. Accepted practice is the root and branch of international law, and the Chinese know it.
But it seems the administration thinks in this instance ambiguity—what others would call incoherence—is the right response as we’ve now seen reinforced by Vice President Biden’s remarks in Tokyo today. Yes, Biden noted, Washington is “deeply concerned” over China’s decision to create the ADIZ but then he said nada, zilch, when it came to demanding the Chinese retract their decision. Instead, Biden offered the puffery of China and Japan needing to create “crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication” to avoid accidents when of course the best policy for avoiding such an accident is for China to be told to stop with its provocations.