I had hoped that the Obama administration would put the kibosh on efforts on the part of the Chinese to expand their air defense zone. I had hoped that the administration would be both firm and adroit with the Chinese, and that the administration would cause the Chinese to believe that they could retreat from any potential conflict without losing face, thus making such a retreat more likely. And I had hoped that the administration would restore American power and credibility abroad in the process.
After its initial, surprisingly strong reaction to China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) last month, the Obama administration seems to have remembered that showing backbone isn’t really its style. Beijing’s announcement was quickly met with strongly worded statements from secretaries Kerry and Hagel and the dispatch of B-52 bombers into the new Chinese ADIZ.
But the President and his team so fear a downturn in relations with Beijing that they prefer to cede to China tactical victories rather than mount full-throated and robust defenses of U.S. interests.
The first crack in American resolve appeared two weeks ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instructed U.S. airlines to abide by China’s illegitimate rules, thus showing the first whisper of daylight between Washington and its Japanese and South Korean allies. This turned out to be but the first step in a rapid retreat from confrontation with Beijing.
Early last week, Joe Biden jetted off to Asia, where he refused to echo White House calls for the ADIZ’s dissolution. Biden instead called for “crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication,” as if the lack of tools to manage the crisis was somehow a bigger problem than China’s decision to cause one in the first place.
But it gets worse. At the Pentagon last Wednesday, Chuck Hagel stated that the U.S. position is “not that the ADIZ itself is new or unique.” General Martin Dempsey, at the same press conference, went further, claiming that “it wasn’t the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing.”
And just a few hours earlier, in private discussions with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, it seems that the vice president all but gave his blessing for the ADIZ. According to the Wall Street Journal, “a focus of Mr. Biden in those meetings was to define the ‘rules of engagement’ between China and other nations in the region to prevent a calamity.” The vice president was apparently happy to come away with “an understanding that the zone won’t be policed in ways that threaten the region or endanger the lives of pilots and passengers.”
So essentially, the Chinese are getting everything they could possibly want out of this confrontation, while the United States is getting nothing whatsoever. This must be some of that “smart diplomacy” I keep hearing so much about.
Incidentally, the next time someone writes paeans to Joe Biden for his allegedly superb diplomatic skills and understanding of foreign policy, I hope that they will remember this moment–especially given a potential Biden run for the presidency.