Miscalculation or test of wills?

What was China up to, when it imposed an air defence zone over the East China Sea that predictably saw a pushback from the United States, Japan and South Korea? Was it a mistake? A test of US resolve? Or an act to shore up internal legitimacy?

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.

There are some very smart strategic thinkers in China and presumably they must have seen this American response coming.

The alternative scenario - suck it and see - suggests a degree of recklessness that is frankly scary given the already tense atmosphere in the region and the absence of effective crisis management mechanisms.

But is the generous interpretation - the ADIZ is part of a carefully crafted long-term plan designed to enhance China's interests - any more comforting?

If this reading is correct, it suggests that some of the most influential strategic thinkers and policymakers in China have embarked on a campaign to not only expand its territory, but also to do so by deliberately testing the will and commitment of its only serious strategic competitor.

For some observers, especially in the US, such a possibility will simply confirm longstanding expectations and some deeply held fears. Greater economic power, many believe, inevitably leads to conflict as rising powers seek to challenge the status quo.

There is, however, a more optimistic reading of the course of history and one that had seemed especially plausible until very recently. For all the current tensions, it is important to remember that there has not been a conflict of any note in East Asia since China and Vietnam had a brief border war in the 1970s.

Inter-state war has gone out of fashion in East Asia, as it has in much of the world. The region's unprecedented economic development has been largely responsible for this happy state of affairs. Countries really do have too much to lose and little to gain from old-fashioned conflict and territorial expansion. Unless, of course, the boundaries are unclear, contested and maritime.

The big question as far as China is concerned is about the extent of the pacifying impact of rising living standards and greater international economic integration. Will the benefits of global commerce prove more influential than the desire to right perceived historical wrongs?

China's relationship with Japan suggests there are grounds for concern. Despite the remarkable levels of economic interdependence between China and Japan, they have clearly not transformed bilateral ties. On the contrary, despite the fact that both nations have powerful reasons for keeping the economic relationship on track, a rising tide of nationalism in both countries threatens to undo it.

This is why China's strategic and foreign policy experimentation is so potentially dangerous.

Not only have recent events done enormous damage to China's hard-won reputation as the increasingly indispensable cornerstone of regional economic development, but they run the risk of triggering actual conflict.

Surely even China's most hawkish policymakers must have reservations about this.

Even a limited, accidental conflict would have entirely unforeseeable, potentially uncontrollable and catastrophic consequences. Even if any conflict could be rapidly contained, the collateral damage inflicted on an already skittish and underperforming global economy would be immense.

China would be as badly affected as any other country by this.

The great danger then, of course, is that the nationalist sentiments that are feeding the desire to right perceived historical wrongs would spiral out of control. We must all hope that if China's new policies were workshopped by its strategists that they considered the possibility of blowback, too.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is professor of international politics at Murdoch University in Australia.