Beijing blinks, but retaliation possible if provoked further

A Chinese produced J-10 fighter jet is displayed outside the offices of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China in Beijing on November 28, 2013. The US on November 28 pressed its concerns over China's newly declared air defence zone, a day after US B-52s flew over the disputed area in the East China Sea.

FOR under an hour, a pair of unarmed B-52 bombers flew unannounced over China's newly declared Air Defence Identification zone (ADIZ), prompting questions whether the United States had decided to take a tougher line with China.

Until the events of the past few days, the US preferred to coax and persuade, rather than threaten, in its engagement with China.

The accepted thinking among experts about the way forward for the US was to try and make China a stakeholder in global problems.

In fact, at a forum on The Future of American Defence organised by the Aspen Institute, a think-tank, just before news broke of the bombers' flight, analysts again proposed this inclusion as the best option for the US.

But Ms Michele Flournoy, former US undersecretary of defence for policy, told the panel discussion: "We need to have some hedge in our strategy against the possibility that China may choose to compete or to use military force to pursue its interest in the future, and we need to make sure that we have a military that can operate effectively in the face of that.

"But we want to do that in a way that is not feeding or fuelling its more competitive dimensions. But that is a very fine line to walk."

Whether that line has been crossed by the B-52 bombers remains up in the air, although some say the evidence now points more towards a competition.

Brookings Institution non-resident senior fellow Marvin Kalb wrote online that the current shift away from the use of force might not be an effective strategy.

"President (Barack) Obama clearly wants to accent diplomacy and lean no longer on military action, which seemed to be American policy in the last decade," he said.

"But China casts a huge shadow over his strategic deliberations, raising questions about whether his preference for diplomacy can work in Asia, specifically in the East China Sea."

For now, at least, it seems the Chinese are shying away from escalating the conflict.

The tepid official response from China towards the bombers' flight has some wondering if Beijing might have overplayed its hand with its attempt to stake its claim over the islands it is disputing with Japan.

The Chinese Defence Ministry statement was notable especially for the absence of any condemnation of the US.

Mr Wendell Minnick, the Asia bureau chief of weekly defence paper Defence News, said the response indicates that "they didn't think it through".

"They thought that no one would respond in that way and aggressively engage them like that. But there was a lot of heat on the US and Japan to do something, and to do it right away," he said.

The US and Japan have certainly been quick to voice their disapproval of the ADIZ that China announced last Saturday.

Washington gave a swift high-level response, with both Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel issuing stern condemnations.

Mr Hagel said the US remains "steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners", even invoking the US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty that obliges the US to defend Japan if it is attacked.

The statements had set up what some saw as a game of chicken between the US and China, with both sides waiting for the other to blink.

As of Wednesday, it appears as if China was first to blink, but no one has yet ruled out future retaliation.

Analysts have warned that Beijing may retaliate against what it sees as further provocation, and a key test of that would be whether the US will be carrying out training exercises that fly over the disputed East China Sea islands.

Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to China, Japan and South Korea next week will also be an early gauge of the state of Sino-American ties.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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