The art of de-escalation

China appears to be piling up the pressure in the region - but an accomplished strategic player must also learn how to deflate it

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.

Is Beijing myopic?

THERE may be many reasons why Chinese strategic decisions often appear myopic to Western watchers. One explanation is that Beijing simply misreads developments in other countries. The Chinese leadership may have wrongly dismissed Japan as too feeble to do anything, and the US as too preoccupied with its own problems to react strongly to a new ADIZ in the East China Sea.

Another possibility is that key decisions are taken with little consultation, so those who know better are not consulted.

The truth is probably somewhere in-between: patchy strategic analysis and badly coordinated decisions rolled into one. Increasingly, the idea that the Chinese are inherently cautious, that they carefully weigh every move and only make decisions after elaborate deliberations, is appearing more like a myth.

Like all other big powers on the rise, the Chinese now act impulsively and without much afterthought, perhaps because they increasingly regard this as their right, and also because they consider themselves capable of dealing with any consequences.

But one would hope and expect Beijing to be more sophisticated. A truly accomplished strategic operator knows how to pile up the pressure, but also how and when to deflate it; this is the true process of "escalation" which most governments aim for when pursuing peaceful approaches to existing disputes.

Loss of face

INSTEAD, China seems to favour taking a big and hugely controversial strategic decision, and then following this with the closure of any venue or compromise, unless it is on China's own terms.

In the current situation for example, there is no way that Japan can agree to negotiations over China's ADIZ as it stands, for this would be tantamount to a Japanese readiness to give up bits of what it regards as its territory. Nor can China officially agree to redraw its ADIZ to satisfy South Korean objections, for this would be to admit that the ADIZ was a miscalculation in the first place.

In short, this conflict can only escalate; de-escalating it requires so much loss of face by any protagonists as to be largely impossible.

The same applies to China's decision to refuse any participation in a United Nations arbitration process over its territorial conflict with the Philippines in the South China Sea. China's refusal would be the first time any country ever refused to take part in an inter- state arbitration under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing has also refused to offer any alternative, equitable mechanism for addressing the dispute. This seems to be the preferred Chinese way of resolving conflict: on its terms, or not at all.

Eager to avoid new confrontations, the US is encouraging China's neighbours to establish crisis hotlines with Beijing. But this idea, although logical, is largely irrelevant. China's political system, where the military does not usually talk to civilian officials, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs merely executes policies while the Communist Party's top leadership makes all the important decisions behind the scenes, is one uniquely unsuited for operating crisis hotlines. Asia appears condemned to staggering from one unexpected crisis to the next, dealing with each one as it arises as best it can.

Perhaps the Chinese will one day realise that piling up such confrontations one after another is not cost-free: with each crisis, another layer is added to the region's simmering disputes. And the more layers there are, the greater the insecurity and the more intractable the conflict becomes. That's what happened in Europe precisely a century ago, when one little territorial dispute followed another in a series of seemingly arcane, complicated rows, none of which were important in themselves, but all of which ultimately pushed the continent into World War I.

There is no inherent reason why history should repeat itself. But there is no justification for repeating many of these century- old mistakes either.