Almost twelve years have elapsed since a four-engine U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane rammed a PLA Air Force fighter heroically patrolling the South China Sea. The American air pirates had to take refuge following their foul misdeed, making an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
Or at least that's how Chinese officialdom portrayed the incident. Next ensued a protracted diplomatic back-and-forth between Beijing and Washington. Chinese officials demanded an apology while Bush administration officials tried to conciliate China without conceding the absurd claim that a lumbering propeller-driven aircraft had struck down a nimble jet fighter. As so often happens in diplomacy, the product of all the wrangling was an ambiguously worded non-apology that let both contestants insist they had had the better of the exchange.
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy professor Alan Wachman had a brilliant take on the affair. Writing in the Boston Globe, he likened the encounter to British emissary Lord Macartney's refusal to kowtow to the Qianlong emperor in 1793. Similarly, Communist China's leadership "sought a verbal kowtow" in hopes of showing its populace the respect China commanded among the international community. Washington demurred. Wachman concluded that both Chinese and U.S. leaders talked themselves into believing they had "bested their adversary," while overlooking the elemental differences that produced the quixotic-seeming clash.
Indeed. The EP-3 incident offered a foretaste of what the coming decade-plus would bring. A midair collision, a minor thing in itself, precipitated the diplomatic ruckus. Its fundamental cause was China's desire to fix the principle that it could rewrite the rules of the international order in the China seas and the skies above.
Beijing has long chafed at surveillance flights, military surveys, and other routine operations carried on in international waters and skies. Such activities are explicitly permitted by treaty and embedded in longstanding custom. By publicly forcing the world's preeminent power to kowtow on freedom of navigation, Beijing believed it could abridge certain liberties to its benefit. Who would stand up for the existing order if not America, its chief founder and guardian?
How does l'affaire EP-3 compare to today's deadlock in the East China Sea, where Beijing proclaims sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and is endeavoring to enforce its claim? The arc of Chinese strategy is similar. Once again, Beijing is using a minor dispute to establish a major principle, namely that it can unilaterally reopen old controversies and change their terms without bothering with pesky negotiations. In that the situation resembles the 2001 run-in between the PLAAF and the U.S. Navy.
But two differences should trouble Tokyo. One, the EP-3 incident was about reaping gain from something that had already happened. It arose from opportunism. This time China has defined its goals in terms of territory and sovereignty. No nation, least of all Asia's historic central power, can lightly relinquish goals that kindle such passion. Beijing would no doubt be pleased were the Japanese to kowtow, but it will demand more than it did from the United States twelve years ago. It wants ground, not just deference.
And two, the balance of power lists increasingly toward China. The maritime enforcement services are the main bearers of Chinese policy toward the Senkakus, but hard military power constitutes the backstop for China's claims. Whereas the United States stood at the pinnacle of its power in 2001 and China's military buildup trailed far behind, the PLA now outmatches the JSDF in numerical terms. That leaves Beijing in a far stronger position facing off against Tokyo than it held vis-à-vis Washington following the EP-3 incident.
If it can isolate Japan from its superpower patron on this matter, China will have seized a commanding position in the diplomatic fracas. Japanese leaders should be — and doubtless are — worried.