Douglas Cohn: A delicate task for Biden to defuse tensions with Chinese

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WASHINGTON — Even though they were unarmed, still it was a bold move for President Obama to order B-52 bombers into air space that the Chinese government had declared off limits to foreign aircraft unless they provide identification and remain in constant communication. The B-52s ignored the regulations, and were not challenged. But U.S. commercial airliners complied, filing their flight plans with the Chinese authorities and creating confusion over exactly what policy the Obama administration wishes to adopt in its dealings with the Chinese.

Vice President Biden happened to be in the region as this confrontation unfolded. It was a long planned trip to Asia, part of the administration’s much touted “pivot” to Asia, and away from the Middle East. The last thing the administration wants is a Cold War with the Chinese which is why the mixed message — B-52s on the one hand; compliant American airlines on the other.

The air space in question is over a set of uninhabited islands that are described uncharitably as a bunch of rocks. Both China and its longtime rival Japan claim sovereignty. The U.S. doesn’t take a position on which country has the better claim, but the U.S. is bound by treaty to defend its ally Japan. Why China sought to elevate the longstanding dispute over the islands to the point where the Obama administration felt it had to act is a mystery.

Possibly there is oil in those waters, but more likely China is flexing its muscles and sending a message to the U.S. to back off on that pivot to Asia. The Obama administration is engaged in trade negotiations with Vietnam and pushing for a renewed presence in the Philippines. These moves make China’s leaders uneasy, and now that they’re the world’s second largest economy, surpassing Japan and second only to the U.S., they want to assert themselves in the world. Asia is a region subject to their sway as they see it, and they’re not going to roll over for the U.S. on the subject of quest for hegemony.

The challenge now for the U.S. is how to get China to back down without their leaders losing face. The White House through Biden has conveyed the heightened risk to air traffic in the disputed area, which is described as the hub of global commerce. No one wants a repeat of what happened in 1983 when a Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean passenger airliner that had strayed into Russian airspace in the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew were killed, including a member of Congress, Rep. Larry McDonald, a Democrat from Georgia.

The hope is that China and Japan will both choose to back away from additional confrontation that could escalate in ways neither country is prepared to handle. Japan may look like an easy target to the newly emboldened China, which has built up its military along with its economy. But if Japan decided to send troops and occupy the islands in question, China could be forced to repel them with missiles and war planes, a scary scenario that neither side wants to set in motion.

The best outcome to the current impasse would be a repeat of what happened in 1960, when Quemoy and Matsu, two islands off the coast of China, became the centerpiece of the presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The islands were a pawn between the Chinese Communists on the mainland, and the Chinese nationalists who had fled to Taiwan, and they became a symbol of Cold War tensions in the ’60 campaign. Kennedy maintained they were not critical to the defense of Taiwan while Nixon said they were essential to freedom and must be defended against the Communists. Kennedy’s election defused the issue in the same way that cooler heads might prevail today if the Obama administration can find the right conditions for a rival emerging superpower to save face.