The art of de-escalation

The art of de-escalation

Joe Biden is not the first emissary American officials automatically think of dispatching to handle sensitive international missions: the United States Vice-President is famous for his gaffes and slips of the tongue.

Still, apart from a brief goofy moment when he referred to the Japanese Prime Minister as "Mr President", Mr Biden acquitted himself well during his latest trip to Asia. He was careful not to indulge in China-bashing.

Yet he was also forthright in expressing Washington's determination to stand by its Asian allies who may feel bullied by China: "America is a Pacific power, a resident Pacific power, and we are going nowhere, repeat: nowhere" was one of his better phrases.

But while Mr Biden may have succeeded in steadying the frayed nerves of the Japanese or South Koreans, he has not shed much light on what the US response may be to the latest assertive moves by China.

The reality is that strategic planners in Washington and other Western capitals are still scrambling to decode the significance of Beijing's latest actions. And what they have already deciphered about China's long-term intentions fills diplomats with a sense of foreboding.

The first and probably the most chilling lesson is that, notwithstanding decades of efforts by tens of thousands of intelligence officers and analysts around the world to understand trends in China's internal politics, the outside world still knows next to nothing about how strategic decisions are taken in Beijing.

Many analysts are pretty sure that a significant decision such as that of establishing the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) would have had to be approved by the top leadership. But who came up with the idea in the first place, who pushed it forward to be adopted and what was the rationale for such an action are baffling, unanswerable questions.

Either way, the country with the largest standing army and the second-biggest economy in the world remains an enigma when it comes to military and security issues.

Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the US had a stronger inkling of how the Soviet Union's top leaders reached strategic decisions and what made them "tick" than about comparable processes inside China today.

Equally troubling is evidence that suggests the Chinese leadership did not think through the implications of creating the ADIZ. Chinese officials were reportedly taken aback when confronted by subsequent South Korean protests against an infringement on Korean national airspace.

And the leadership in Beijing appeared surprised by the US decision to defy the zone and fly two B-52 heavy bombers into China's ADIZ - given China's lack of official response to the "incursion" for the first 24 hours - although the American response was entirely foreseeable to anyone who understands Washington's perspective.

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