Gwynne Dyer: Playing chicken in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

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      Since November 23, when China declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) that covers the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the media have been full of predictions of confrontation and crisis. On that same day Japan scrambled two F-15 fighters to intercept two Chinese aircraft that approached the islands.

      “This announcement by the People's Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” said U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel, and on Tuesday (November 26) the U.S. Air Force flew two B-52 bombers from Guam into the ADIZ.

      A Pentagon spokesman said that Washington “continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies”.

      But forcing incoming aircraft to do just that is the whole point of creating an ADIZ. Aircraft entering the zone must provide a flight plan, maintain two-way radio communications, and clearly identify their nationality, said the Chinese defence ministry, and aircraft that ignore the rules would be subject to “defensive emergency measures”.

      Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Japan’s parliament on Monday (November 25) that the zone “can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well”. But on Tuesday (November 26), Tokyo instructed Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines to simply ignore the zone when flying through it.

      It is turning into a game of chicken, and the East China Sea is just about the worst place in the world for that kind of foolishness.

      China and Japan have been pursuing an increasingly angry dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are under Japanese administration.

      They also have a long history of conflict (in which China was generally the victim), and they both have strongly nationalist leaders. Beijing is looking for a diplomatic victory here, not a war, but it is taking a very big gamble.

      “The Japanese and U.S. complaints that the ADIZ is a 'unilateral' move that changes 'the status quo' are inherently false,” wrote the China Daily. “The U.S. did not consult others when it set up and redrew its ADIZs. Japan never got the nod from China when it expanded its ADIZ, which overlaps Chinese territories and exclusive economic zone. Under what obligation is China supposed to seek Japanese and U.S. consent in a matter of self-defence?”

      Fair comment, as far as it goes—but it would normally be prudent to discuss the matter with the neighbours before proclaiming an air defence identification zone that overlaps by half with one of theirs. (Japan already has an ADIZ that covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.)

      Moreover, ADIZs usually require only aircraft that intend to enter the country’s national airspace to notify the controllers, not all aircraft transiting the ADIZ.

      Just how does China intend to enforce its new ADIZ? By shooting down a Japan Airlines 787 and a U.S. Air Force B-52?

      If not that, then how? National pride and the personal reputation of new President Xi Jinping are both seriously committed to this game now, and if the foreigners ignore the zone, China cannot just shrug its shoulders and forget about it.

      Which brings us to the key question: did Beijing really game out this move before it decided to set the zone up? Did it set up teams to play the Japanese and the Americans realistically, look at what they might do to challenge the zone, and consider its own countermoves?

      That’s what most great powers would do before launching a challenge like this, and maybe China did that too. But maybe it didn’t.

      When you put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese navy or air force commander trying to enforce the new ADIZ, you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He can shoot something down, of course, but even his own government would quail at the possible consequences of that. Quite apart from the grave danger of escalation into a full-scale military confrontation with Japan and the United States, the economic damage to China would be huge.

      On the other hand, if he doesn’t compel aircraft transiting the zone to accept China’s new rules, both he and his political superiors will be open to the charge of failing to defend national sovereignty. This is a lose/lose situation, and I suspect that the Chinese government and military really didn’t game it through before they proclaimed the ADIZ.

      The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not worth a war, or even a single ship or aircraft. They are uninhabited, and their alleged connection with the seabed rights to a natural gas field around 300 kilometres away is extremely tenuous. This move is a deliberate escalation of an existing dispute, made with the intention of forcing the other side to back down and lose face.

      It’s quite common in games of chicken to block off your own escape routes from the confrontation, in order to show that you are not bluffing. And in almost all games of chicken, each side underestimates the other’s will to risk disaster rather than accept humiliation. This could end quite badly.




      Nov 27, 2013 at 5:36pm

      Anything that might cause great economic damage to China would cause even greater damage to the developed world because we've become so dependent on made-in-China goods.

      Not only would a sudden lack of Chinese products hurt the little guy (Western consumers), but the resulting crash in global stock markets would severely harm the rich, and there's no way that either of these groups would voluntarily let that happen.


      Nov 27, 2013 at 5:39pm

      In other words, the rich would rather lose a game of chicken than lose their fortune, and Western consumers would rather lose a game of chicken than lose the opportunity to buy junk from China at Wal-mart.

      From that perspective, maybe China is not taking such a big risk afterall. We're proud and stubborn, yes, but we're not stupid and self-destructive -- I hope!

      David English

      Nov 27, 2013 at 7:38pm

      Agreed, it doesn't make sense given the current path. Time favours China... why are they rushing into these conflicts long before they're ready? Their military would lose a current fight, no doubt about it, and it will take years, if not decades, of military growth to change that. About the only thing they can "win" is a trade war, if the people side with the government.

      And, maybe that's the point behind this. Create a nationalistic conflict (done), escalate it (done), and let it bubble over into some minor yet indignant defeat. At that point, all those enraged/humiliated Chinese citizens would boycott all the "aggressors" involved. Just how much did the Japanese automakers lose in the last bout of angry protests? How much did the Chinese automakers gain?

      Once upon a time, China was the worlds largest emerging market. International corporations scrambled to find ways to sell their stuff to the Chinese people. But, the Chinese government did something odd... they played with the currency markets to keep their people poor. They also abused the global trading system to turn China into a powerhouse manufacturing centre. Now, they have a billion people coming out of poverty and they have the ability to manufacture everything those people need. They just need to keep those people from buying foreign stuff.

      At one point, I thought they would do this with a trade war. But, a real war, especially a little one, will accomplish the same thing much more effectively. Punitive tariffs are small potatoes compared to angry mobs. Maybe the Chinese did game this out... maybe it's just a different game than Mr. Dyer has considered. They may very well want to lose a small military confrontation.

      If so, it is not a lose-lose proposition for China. If a provoked US or Japan responds militarily, China wins financially. If the US or Japan fails to respond when provoked, China wins territory, and they can keep doing it, over and over, until they get the response they want. You can't win a game of chicken if the other player wants to crash.


      Nov 27, 2013 at 8:59pm

      A passenger in a business class may want their Airliners to comply, less he die for nothing...he is just going for a holiday, not playing chicken with the China Peoples Liberation Army. They got jets and missiles, his 747 don't have one.... 256 passengers playing chickens together...


      Nov 27, 2013 at 10:48pm

      China produces NOTHING that cannot be sourced elsewhere given a small amount of transition time, and this includes rare earth elements. Their energy and metals situation is tenuous, and their combat capabilities are dubious and suspect, to be kind. Thankfully, few in the know are confused about what this is really about -- domestic propaganda, for local consumption only.

      Pat Crowe

      Nov 28, 2013 at 1:41am

      One must consider how things might have been different if China had colonized North America first?
      Wal Mart may have been some sort of democratic/communist endeavour that worked well for the masses.
      Hard luck for the local colour, however.

      What a Gamble

      Nov 28, 2013 at 2:41am

      China simply overplayed its hand. Even South Korea is freely flying over this territory.

      I just don't know how China can reverse this unenforceable policy without losing face.

      Although unproductive, I wouldn't be surprised if every country that owns territory disputed by china begins flying over this airspace.


      Nov 28, 2013 at 5:24am

      With the ADIZ, China can now legally fly its war planes inside the ADIZ , including over Diaoyu Islands. That's the main purpose of the ADIZ. US B-52 & Japan aircraft (both commercial & military) are secondary issue. To Japan & US, Do Not Do To China What You Don't Like China Do To You.


      Nov 28, 2013 at 5:34am

      Ah, a jolly little war. It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. We await the next miscalculation, someone pressing the wrong button, mistaking an airliner for a military jet, or a fighter pilot jacked up on speed to lose patience with a non responsive jetliner that looks like a spy plane. Fortunately, countries that trade together rarely go to war with each other. One easy out is to turn the island into a wilderness preserve, save fish stocks and marine life and the planet all at the same time. No one will be allowed to fly over at under ten thousand feet in order not to disturb whatever wild animal lives there. And well all live happily ever after.