WHAT IS China up to?
There is arguably no more important question for practitioners and observers of international politics today.
The escalating crisis in the East China Sea puts this question in sharp relief, especially in the wake of tensions after China declared an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on Nov 23 that included areas in dispute with neighbouring countries, and imposed rules requiring any aircraft flying through the zone to file its flight plan with Beijing.
The United States sent two bombers flying unannounced into the zone, and Japan and South Korea have protested against the zone.
Unravelling China's intentions is surprisingly difficult.
It is far from clear whether the ADIZ is part of a carefully calibrated, widely supported grand strategy, or whether it is an initiative that has emerged from China's increasingly influential military.
China's foreign policy-making processes are notoriously opaque, but it would be useful to know whether China's recent actions have the enthusiastic support of President Xi Jinping, for example.
Yet wherever this policy originated, its authors must have expected it would inevitably be seen as highly provocative. It is, therefore, a calculated risk presumably designed to test reactions.
Could China simply get away with asserting such a claim? If not, what sort of response would it provoke? Crucially, what would the US do?
Seen in the short term, the ADIZ looks like a colossal error of judgment.
The entire region is deeply unsettled and looking to the US to restore stability and strategic certainty. In such circumstances, the US had little option other than to send an unambiguous signal that it was not about to be intimidated by China and that it would honour its alliance obligations to Japan.