China's Dangerous Air and Sea Show: Outcome, Options

Nearly a week has come and gone since Vice President Joe Biden's big Asia-Pacific tour in the immediate wake of China declaring an air defense zone across the East China Sea. It proved to be a consequential trip, one swiftly followed on by Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Vietnam this weekend before going on to the Philippines. Both countries are sharply at odds with China's declaration of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, and Vietnam War hero-turned-protester Kerry could play a significant role in boosting a nascent friendship with our old enemy Vietnam.

Ironically, with questions abounding about America fading as a Pacific factor thanks to endless distractions in the Middle East and massive dysfunction in American politics, Biden's trip demonstrated much the opposite. He was looked to in the capitals of Japan, South Korea, and China as an essential player, whether ally or antagonist, thrust into lengthy talks on how to straighten out events with the head of each government.

Topics included not just China's expansionist moves in the South China Sea and East China Sea but also a new crisis in North Korea around the execution of the young leader's uncle, arrangements for the slow-motion rebalancing of US forces from their fateful engagements in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to the rising Asia-Pacific, recurring World War II-related troubles between Japan and South Korea, natural disaster arrangements in the wake of the Philippines' super-typhoon, China's ongoing refusal of credentials and visas to a raft of New York Times and Bloomberg News reporters who have written about a reported pattern of massive enrichment of Chinese leadership families, and a too secret Trans Pacific Partnership negotiation seemingly stalled on a US corporate wish list which may or may not be seriously favored by the Obama Administration, among others.

Far from being irrelevant or out of it, as China's leaders had noisily suggested when President Barack Obama canceled his long-in-the-works Asian summitry during the federal government shutdown debacle, America looked like an indispensable balance of power agent in the vast region. And it was Joe Biden, oft derided as an erratic motor mouth at home, well in the thick of things with very lengthy and detailed meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping -- who accorded him Chinese "old friend" status at the beginning of his visit but seemed to pall after Biden's reported straight talk on press censorship and China's aggressive moves, another of which, we just had confirmed on Friday, occurred during Biden's trip in the form of a near-ramming of an American cruiser in the South China Sea -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

But the biggest question, the sudden crisis occasioned by China's latest expansionist move -- unilaterally declaring an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands long claimed by Japan -- remained unresolved.

Which leaves a variety of optional scenarios for the US. Much more on that in a moment.

Still, Biden was able to make some headway in smoothing relations between Japan and South Korea, each a key ally of the US which the Obama Administration would like to be allies of each other. Bad feelings over Japan's imperial past, especially during the Pacific War which became part of World War II, when Japan occupied Korea and made many of its female citizens "comfort women" for its troops, have lingered.

And Biden was able to find common cause with all three nations -- South Korea, Japan, and China -- on the latest malodorous doings in North Korea, where the young new leader's uncle was executed by the state under mysterious circumstances. All four nations have an agenda in keeping North Korea, with its frequent brandishing of nukes and missiles and wild threats of violent attack, under control.

Which reminds that this is not simply a nascent cold war situation with China. While the administration clearly has no interest in helping China become the new number one world power, it does have an interest in pursuing trade and investment opportunities, as well as sharing some of the responsibility for global troubleshooting. The US has encouraged China to contribute UN peacekeeping forces, for example, which Beijing has just begun to do. And China's leadership under President Xi recognizes the same opportunities.

It also seems to have recognized that its own opportunity to steal a march on the US while the world's only current superpower was still hung up in the succeeding chapters of its post-9/11 adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia required some fast action, hence the very aggressive moves of late in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

For, with the sudden almost war with Syria's Assad regime disappearing in the rear view mirror and with the Iranian nuclear crisis defused by the interim Obama-led agreement between the Islamic republic and the five permanent UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany, not to mention the Iraq War over and the Afghan War drawing down, the US is much closer to being clear of endless distraction from its historically core national interests in the Asia-Pacific.

In fact, the US could be due for something of a global resurgence. There are developments which can confound the classic global energy politics of recent decades.

Despite all its problems, a technology-driven energy boom may soon make the US not only the world's biggest oil and natural gas producer but also the world leader in renewable energy systems. That would make us, at long last -- more than 40 years after the first Arab oil embargo was imposed as penalty for our intervention on Israel's side in the Yom Kippur War -- far less dependent on energy from the Middle East and all the headaches and over-commitments which that occasions. And with what is still clearly the world's best armed forces and an expansive venue in the Pacific with potentially many supportive allies that plays to many of America's strengths far more than does asymmetric desert warfare against religious zealots, the challenges may be much more manageable and rational.

Of course, the US and China could conceivably work well together. If the People's Republic survives internal pressures and contradictions.

President Xi is consolidating his power base, having just had a major rival on the Politburo arrested. But elite power struggles are only part of the rise of what is known in China as neo-authoritarian leadership, which may run up against its limits if China's looming issues of grave inequality in a society founded upon Communist egalitarianism, questions of economic over-capacity, much discussed claims of massive corruption, widespread censorship, and looming environmental problems reverberate across a society which already carries the incipient threat of spinning apart due to its vast size, expanse, and diversity in key elements of its periphery.

Nevertheless, China is bound on a trajectory toward superpower status, hence its hegemonic moves. But it is also a nation that need not be an enemy, assuming that its own authoritarianism does not lead to internal revolt.

Indeed, President Xi has amiable relations with Biden, Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Brown and Schwarzenegger both made big trade and investment trips to China and urged the PRC to collaborate on renewable energy and climate change; Brown conducted a parallel summit with Xi and other top Chinese leaders during the Obama-Xi summit earlier this year in California; Schwarzenegger was just in China last week while in Asia promoting his new movie Escape Plan, which is a big hit in the PRC, and visited the famed Terracotta Warriors guarding the mummified first Emperor of China in Xi'an -- and other American leaders, not to mention mutual interests in trade and investment. One senses Xi knows America well enough to have decided to accelerate matters in the South China Sea and the East China Sea while America was still caught up in its post-9/11 brambles.

All the better to create a set of faits accompli that would be far harder to reverse than to block in the first place.

But the Syrian and Iranian crises have probably wound down faster than Xi anticipated. Meaning that some smart thinking and maneuvering over the next several months could serve the Asia-Pacific Pivot very well.

Incidentally, mentioning China's first emperor, visited by Schwarzengger last week, reminds that it is not only the US and Japan with imperialist heritages in the Asia-Pacific. China's imperialism is much more ancient and, in the eyes of many, deeply ingrained.

Of course, China had an emperor because it was an empire. And not always that happy an empire. The farther it pushed from the core of the Middle Kingdom, the more ethnicities and systems of belief it encompassed, the less coherent it became, with internal contradictions, much beloved in Marxist theory, there to be discerned and taken advantage of.

I saw some of them at first hand during my post-college "hippie grand tour" of the old Silk Road routes which took me backpacking from Venice, Italy (land of Marco Polo) to the Middle East and on up into Central Asia and South Asia and the outlying parts of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. I saw at first hand in Xinjiang just how divided and unassimilated many of those conquered by the Chinese empire remained centuries later. Home to more than a half-dozen major non-Chinese ethnic groups, most of whom are Muslims, Xinjiang -- which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India -- is the center of China's "indigenous" petroleum industry, its largest source of natural gas with big oil reserves.

What was clear to me as I poked around the picturesque if often desolate mountainous province was that the somewhat paranoid but manageable Chinese security forces did not communicate well with each other or the general population, in large part due to ethnic divisions, and were not well coordinated. (This was a few decades ago, but I understand that the problems made clear then persist.) They certainly weren't talking much with their Soviet allies, who had picked me up earlier when, space aficionado and Star Trek fan that I am, I went looking for the famed but at that time never-seen-on-the-ground-by-a-Westerner Baikonur space complex (which, for "maskirovka" security purposes, was nowhere near the actual town of Baikonur, as I clearly knew given how close to the actual location I was when picked up for questioning) in the nearby Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. While I made a convincing world history grad student (not to mention Star Trek fan) for the obvious reasons, the Soviets were suspicious enough to escort me to the border. But the internal communication problems for the Chinese forces were matched by the lack of communication with their supposed Communist ally.

Which suggests something deserving further study. Does China's leadership fear that its long ago conquered territories containing critical petroleum reserves are in enough potential risk to drive them to become very aggressive in establishing domination over the South China Sea and East China Sea, each of which sits atop key resources?

Since Biden did not solve matters in his nearly six hour-long meeting with President Xi in Beijing, what are current real world, i.e., non-withdrawal, options on the latest crises in the East China Sea and South China Sea?

First to the just confirmed incident in the South China Sea, which the PRC claims virtually all of as its sovereign territory to the dismay of its fellow neighbors along that very strategic body of water.

A day after Biden met with President Xi, there was a significant incident in the South China Sea in which a Chinese naval vessel nearly rammed USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser observing China's new aircraft carrier operating in international waters. Cowpens was observing the operations of China's first ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, an old Soviet cruiser called the Varyag which the PRC purchased from Ukraine and converted into a carrier last year. The reality is that the People's Liberation Army Navy, as the Chinese navy is formally known, is at the early stages of learning how to conduct carrier air operations, especially the key trick of landing aircraft on the aircraft carrier, something the US Navy has been doing for more than 90 years. But China's neighbors on the South China Sea have small navies, and certainly no aircraft carriers, and are easily over-awed by the notion, much bruited about in the Chinese media, that Liaoning will soon become the central actor in China's claims to the SCS.

Although Cowpens had every right in what are, despite China's claim, international waters to monitor the Liaoning and its task group, the Chinese navy ordered the American cruiser to come to a full stop. When that, obviously, did not occur, the Chinese admiral ordered a support vessel to suddenly cut across the cruiser's bow, creating a ramming incident unless Cowpens executed an extreme evasive maneuver.

Now, this is irritating and unusual, but the fact is that these sorts of reindeer games have taken place from time to time between rival navies throughout history. It's important not to make too much of it.

But what is intriguing is this question: Was the Cowpens incident really about backing the cruiser off from observing the Liaoning? Or was it another move in the East China Sea air defense zone controversy, coming as it did a day after Biden's nearly six-hour meeting in Beijing with President Xi, during which he made US opposition clear.

Now to China's attempt to impose an air defense zone in the East China Sea. Since China, not surprisingly, has not rescinded its claim, here are some options that occur:

1. Do no more unless China makes another move. The US has made it plain that it doesn't recognize China's new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. Not only is it not sharing its military flight plans with the Chinese, as the zone requires, it deliberately sent two huge B-52 bombers through the putative zone, right over the Senkaku Islands China is trying to claim back from Japan. The Obama Administration is allowing commercial airlines to share their flight plans with China, preferring to lower risk for civilian aircraft. South Korea is doing the same thing, while Japan is not.

Since the airline schedules are public, it's not much of a concession to pass on the flight plans. But refusing to play along on the question of military aircraft, which of course is China's principal concern in this attempt at intimidation, is the key to making China's new zone a dead letter.

Of course, China may choose not to let it all slide. Rather than implicitly accept that the move was an overreach, it could instead intercept or otherwise harass foreign military aircraft.

2. Increase operational tempo over the East China Sea to force the Chinese air force to respond and show its hand. If China is posturing aggressively, either in the East China Sea or elsewhere, the US could increase its operational tempo there to drive the point home and make China respond.

3. Look for ways in which to show up the Chinese in air ops in their new air defense zone. During the Cold War, pilots on both sides not infrequently found ways to aggressively engage their counterparts, in what amounted to partial mock dogfights. Since US pilots are more experienced and fly generally superior aircraft, this would be a way to further drive home the point that the supposed air defense zone is not only not respected, but very disrespected.

4. Step back and see if Japan and China get into a brushfire war next year, as there is at least a decent chance that Japan would prevail in a limited conflict. The US, as officials have repeatedly stated, is bound by mutual defense treaty with Japan to come to Japan's aid if it is attacked by another nation. This holds with regard to the East China Sea crisis. But how quickly it does so is a matter of judgment. If China and Japan were to get into a limited brushfire war, the US could choose not to intervene at once, working instead with the UN to bring the conflict to a close.

The military capabilities of Japan, the world's third leading economic power, are increasing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The USC-educated leader of the centrist Liberal Democratic Party has led the LDP back into its traditional governing party role and is moving away from Japan's MacArthur-dictated pacifist strictures requiring strictly self-defense forces, a notion already belied by the big naval and air assets Japan has long possessed.

Japan is quickly developing a marine corps, modeled on the US Marine Corps, to deal with potential Chinese moves. In fact, US and Japanese forces conducted amphibious exercises along the California coast earlier this year, with the Japanese learning from the US Navy and Marine Corps, past masters for decades in amphibious operations. Indeed, it was a particularly daring Marine amphibious landing at Inchon that enabled the recapture of the South Korean capital of Seoul and prevented a swift North Korean victory in the Korean War. Had the Inchon landing not taken place, China would never have entered the war the following month to prevent the complete collapse of North Korea.

A quick Japanese victory in conflict around the disputed Senkaku Islands would create an intriguing situation.

With international pressure mounting for a truce, the US would be able to press for peace between Japan and China even as it guaranteed its intervention on Japan's behalf if China entertained thoughts of escalating matters to the next level.

The Chinese can't beat the US Navy now, in all but the most favorable coastal waters of the Western Pacific. That's especially true if they are fighting Japan as well. The greatest risk would lie in what might happen next -- a heightened arms race, a Chinese nationalism, already rather feverish, festering in its hopes for revenge, etc.

For all its advances -- China is in the early stages of an intriguing Moon rover mission as all this plays out -- China is still largely dependent on Russian aircraft and Russian aeronautical designs in the military realm. The PRC has been trying for several years to get its hands on the Sukhoi-35, which could give them an edge over Japanese air forces and challenge American aircraft, but Moscow has dragged its feet on the arms deal.

So long as we don't get caught up in a new war in Syria or Iran, the US, even with federal budget pressures, has what it needs to do well on the far end of the Asia-Pacific Pivot, furthering ties with flourishing and rising economies and societies in a vast expanse from Tokyo to Mumbai while seeking a to generate and sustain a creative tension with the nascent superpower ruled from Beijing.

There are even some signs that American allies are listening to the need for better relations with one another as the Asia-Pacific Pivot proceeds. Japanese Prime Minister Abe is wrapping up his hosting of a three-day conference in Tokyo with top leaders from ASEAN (the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Their national memories of Japan's early successes in so forcefully imposing an imperial Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as the Pacific War became World War II have, by and large, not faded.

And feelings are still very tender in South Korea, also one of the world's largest economies, over Japan's past and frequently brutal imperial sway there. But that's not stopping Japan and South Korea from holding a naval exercise in the East China Sea.

The trick for the US in all this is to follow the old admonition of, ironically, Chairman Mao. We should resist hegemony without seeking hegemony.

This Open Door approach to the vast region, reflecting in a new way the doctrine of John Hay, President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of state, will please friends and potential allies and serve US interests in the bargain.

And for all the pressing and not infrequently exciting challenge in dealing with China's aggressive moves, it's important to remember the need for multiplex messaging with China. There are elements of a new cold war inherent in the emerging relationship with the huge People's Republic. But recalling the old Cold War all too well, it's clear that there are also shared interests between America and China that simply did not exist with the Soviet Union.

We need to be able to play tough and make nice at the same time. To pursue joint commercial and humanitarian interests and be able to engage in measured military confrontation at a moment's notice.

Let's hope the Obama Administration, and its successor, is up to delivering the deft and decisive leadership that will be required.