Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Among many questions raised by China's sudden declaration of an air defense zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea, one is the most intriguing: Why did President Xi Jinping pick this time to challenge President Obama on U.S. security commitments to Japan and South Korea? A second question is: What does China want?

The answer to the second question is clear: China intends to assert its historical claims, sovereignty, over all the waters and islands lying off its coasts in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Beijing claims large swaths of the seas in both the South China Sea and the East China seas, demands that are disputed by many regional states: Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Until recently, the Chinese government didn't possess the economic and military power required to press its claims with neighbors. It is now an economic colossus in Asia and uses trade relations with other countries to support its foreign policy objectives. China is now building a large navy and air force to bolster its territorial claims. Until recently, its attention was focused on asserting its control over the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway for commercial shipping headed to Northeast Asia.

Why has China picked this moment to precipitate a mini-crisis with Japan?

The first reason is Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the region this week, with talks planned with top leaders of China, South Korea, and Japan.. President Xi will impress on Mr. Biden China's case for declaring an air security zone over islands now held by Japan but contested by China.

The second reason is China's frustration with Japan's "arrogant manner" in the matter, refusing to consider negotiations regarding China's historical rights to a group of uninhabited islands that Japan has owned for a hundred years. Japan currently flies surveillance aircraft over the islands and in recent months has sent patrol boats to keep tabs on foreign flag fishing boats in the area. China thinks the United States should press Japan to enter talks regarding China's legitimate claim.

A third and key reason for Beijing's decision to challenge Japan's interests in the East China Sea is President Xi's calculation that Barack Obama and Congress are so fully absorbed in the Middle East and with political controversy at home that the White House doesn't want to face a potential conflict in East Asia.

China sees Obama and John Kerry as preoccupied with curtailing Iran's nuclear enrichment program and keeping peace in the Arab World. It views the stalemate in Congress over passing a federal budget and the dramatic shutdown of the government in October as a sign that America is faltering as a superpower. It may be time to create a tempest in the East China Sea, Beijing calculates.

The initial response from Washington to Beijing's test was to send two B-52 bombers over the new Chinese defense zone without giving notification, as Beijing requires.

Japan and South Korea followed with their own unannounced surveillance flights. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared that the United States would honor its commitment to defend Japan if it were attacked.

The danger in this tense situation is that Japan is likely to respond forcefully to threats from China. It has a new nationalist-minded government headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He plans to expand Japan's defense forces and reinterpret a postwar U.S.-imposed constitution that limits their missions. Japan's navy is more powerful than China's, and Mr. Abe is not the kind of Japanese leader who will bow to blandishments from Beijing.

Barack Obama finds himself faced with a somewhat analogous situation in Northeast Asia as he encountered in the Middle East. There he made a calculated judgment that negotiations Iran were preferable to another war in the area. His decision is strongly opposed by long-time allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who were not consulted on this major shift in America's view of its interests.

In case of a potentially dangerous confrontation between Japan and China over security zones in East Asia, the calculus is different than in the Middle East. Japan is a militarily strong state that can defend its interests, if need be without U.S. participation. If the Japanese government concludes that the Obama administration will not fully support it in a military confrontation, Japan will most likely not back down.

That is why the Biden visits this week are crucial to ascertain how far China is prepared to push its claims and whether Japan is willing to enter talks to defuse the tensions. This is a case where neither Japan nor China is likely to give way on defending vital interests. The question then is whether diplomacy can prevent a descent into war.

File last modified on Monday, 09-DEC-2013 12:03 PM EST

Feedback to Author