China's declaration of a so-called air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, extending to territories it does not control, is just the latest example of a jurisdictional creep that reflects a larger Chinese strategy to supplant the United States as the pre-eminent power in Asia. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has responded with words of cautious criticism but no castigatory step, not even delaying Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Beijing.
Worse still, with its advisory to U.S. airlines to respect the zone, Washington has opened a rift with ally Japan at a time when the imperative is for presenting a united front against an escalatory act that even Mr. Biden admits is "a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea." Japan has asked its carriers to ignore China's demand for advance notification of flights even when they are transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies.
Let's be clear: At stake are not just some flyspeck islands but regional power balance, a rules-based order, freedom of navigation and access to maritime resources, including seabed minerals. If China gets its way, it will unlock the path to a Sino-centric Asia.
As China accumulates economic and military power, it has increasingly taken to ratcheting up territorial disputes with multiple neighbours. It's seeking to alter the territorial and maritime status quo.
The ADIZ establishment was cleverly timed to coincide with the unveiling of the interim Iran nuclear deal in Geneva. Achieving major tactical surprise against an adversary are key elements in China's strategic doctrine.
It is a reminder that Mr. Obama must turn his attention from the Middle East to the potentially combustible situation in East Asia. To make the promise of his Asian "pivot" real, the President must be willing to assert U.S. leadership in order to help tame China's belligerence and reassure allies.
Sending two unarmed B-52 bombers on routine runs through the Chinese ADIZ was tokenism that cannot obscure the need for crafting a credible U.S. response. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama seems more interesting in balancing America's relationships in Asia than in checkmating an aggressive China.
Mr. Obama's Asia policy seeks to reap the benefits of building closer engagement with Asian states – including China, now central to U.S. economic and strategic interests – while charting a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes. This delicate balancing act, however, implies strategic and moral equivalence, even though the coercion and aggression is largely by China against states that are U.S. allies or strategic partners.
For example, in the ADIZ crisis, Washington is also urging restraint on Japan's part, lest any escalation force the U.S. to take sides. Washington is seeking to manage Sino-Japanese tensions by urging both sides to tamp down their nationalistic rhetoric and reduce the risk of escalation or miscalculation through crisis-management and confidence-building measures. This is the message Mr. Biden took to Tokyo and Beijing.
Yet the focus on the dual management of China's rise and Sino-Japanese tensions obfuscates the broader test of power the Chinese actions represent. It also obscures former U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates's 2011 warning that China's long-term goal is to push the United States and its military assets farther out in the Pacific.
In this light, the U.S. position of not challenging China directly only emboldens creeping aggression.
China is nibbling at territories held by several neighbours, as highlighted by growing its incursions across the disputed Himalayan border with India, its success in outwitting the Philippines to gain effective control of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its aggressive moves against Vietnam over their unsettled maritime boundary. Its self-declared ADIZ even covers the sky over the South Korean-held Leodo Isle, which Beijing calls the Suyan Rock.
China's zone, while aimed at solidifying its claims to territories held by Japan and South Korea, increases the risks of Sino-Japanese conflict arising from miscalculation or accident. Compelling aircraft to accept the new Chinese rules won't be easy for Beijing, given China's limited early-warning radar and in-flight refuelling capabilities and the refusal of some neighbouring states, especially Japan, to fall in line.
As part of its step-by-step strategy, however, Beijing has no intention of enforcing the zone immediately. Enforcement will come later, when circumstances are more favourable. Right now, the priority of China's leaders is to prevail in their game of chicken.
If China is able to ride out international criticism while holding its ground, it will be emboldened to set up a similar zone in the South China Sea, more than 80 per cent of which it now formally claims. According to Xinhua, a government spokesman "said China will set up other ADIZs in due time after completing relevant preparations."
That is why it is important for the United States to draw the line now. Without a concerted effort to push back against aggression, it won't be long before another encroachment.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War.