There is trouble on the horizon, and before long it may turn into very big trouble.
In late August, I wrote at length about China’s resolute turn back to despotism; about its vehement public repudiation of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and freedom of the press; and about the manner in which Chinese communist cadres are now expected to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic The Ancien Regime and the Revolution as a warning against a relaxation of party discipline.
There is another dimension to what is going on in China, and it dovetails neatly with the first. In and for a long time after the time of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese talked softly while carrying a big stick. Deng and his immediate successors understood that the rise of China would elicit anxiety on the part of the Japanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Taiwanese, and the Filipinos, and they did what they could to allay that anxiety by refraining from doing anything that would suggest on their part aggressive intent.
In the last couple of years, however, all of that has changed; and everywhere where one goes in Asia, an old friend who travels in high circles told me earlier this week, one senses hostility — not towards the United States but towards one’s neighbors. The anger underlying all of this has been stirred by the Chinese, who have been throwing their weight around with ever greater force.
This weekend the Chinese upped the ante. In the South China Sea, between Korea and Taiwan, there are some uninhabited islands, which are called the Senkaku isles by the Japanese and the Diayu isles by the Chinese. Although there are other claimants, these have been controlled for many decades by the Japanese. This weekend, however, China extended its air-defence zone to include the islands:
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said Saturday that the establishment of the zone, which China said entered into force as of 10 a.m. Saturday, was aimed at “safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order.”
“It is a necessary measure in China’s exercise of self-defense rights. It has no particular target and will not affect the freedom of flight in relevant airspace,” Yang said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
“China will take timely measures to deal with air threats and unidentified flying objects from the sea, including identification, monitoring, control and disposition, and it hopes all relevant sides positively cooperate and jointly maintain flying safety,” he said.
Along with the new zone, the Chinese ministry released a set of aircraft identification rules that it says must be followed by all aircraft entering the area, under penalty of intervention by China’s military.
Aircraft are now expected to provide their flight path, clearly mark their nationality and maintain two-way radio communication in order to “respond in a timely and accurate manner to identification inquiries” from Chinese authorities.
Shen Jinke, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, reported late Saturday that it had conducted a sweep of the area using early warning aircraft and fighter jets. “The patrol is in line with international common practices, and the normal flight of international flights will not be affected,” Shen said.
Four Chinese Coast Guard boats briefly entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus on Friday, after multiple incursions at the end of October and the beginning of this month further aggravated tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.
The Japanese are understandably perturbed:
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in late October said the repeated incursions are a threat to peace and fall in a “gray zone (between) peacetime and an emergency situation.”
A few days earlier, his Chinese counterpart had threatened Japan that any bid to shoot down China’s drones would constitute “an act of war.” That move came after a report said Japan had drafted plans to destroy foreign drones that encroach on its airspace if warnings to leave are ignored.
Not surprisingly, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry have expressed concern. They ought to be concerned. This is a deliberate provocation, and it is clearly meant as a challenge to Japan. In that neck of the woods, the Chinese evidently intend to have their way, and those who do not acquiesce will be made to pay dearly. What we are witnessing is an attempt by the Chinese to assert and establish their hegemony over the entire region. What they aim at is something like what, in the years prior to World War II, the Japanese called the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Intimately connected with this development is another fact. In recent years, since the economic downturn that began in 2007, prominent Chinese have repeatedly expressed contempt for the United States. We are on the decline, they say. Decadence has set in, and China’s time has come.
There is good reason to think that the Chinese leadership believes that this is true, and there is this to be said in defense of their posture. Their ability to project power in the Pacific has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and we have done nothing to counter their preparations to take out our bases and ships.
If the Chinese leadership really believes what its members sometimes say, the final years of the second term of Barack Obama and those of his successor are going to be more unpleasant than anyone has yet imagined. Statesmen who broadcast weakness and who cut military budgets to the bone, are asking for trouble. Those who sow the wind are bound to reap the whirlwind.