A Japanese Coast Guard boat patrols near one of the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands in waters near Okinawa, Japan on Sept. 19, 2012. Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
The Communist Party summit that recast Xi Jinping as a reformer extraordinaire has produced its first foreign-policy initiative: poking Japan in the eye.
That seems to be the point of China's declaration of a vast "air defense identification zone," in which Beijing has essentially claimed the airspace around disputed islands administered by Japan. The provocation came just two weeks after the party called for a new national security council to coordinate military, domestic and intelligence operations in China. Political analysts who worried that the body might herald a deepening Asian Cold War weren't being entirely paranoid.
There's nothing particularly shocking about establishing such a council, state-run media says. The U.S. and Russia both have one, after all, and even Japan is talking about creating its own. Besides, as the Xinhua News Agency was kind enough to inform readers in a Nov. 22 explainer piece, "China is a stabilizer for world peace and security, and the new commission is like a performance guarantee for the stabilizer and will in turn bring benefits to the whole world."
Tell that to Itsunori Onodera, Japan's minister of defense, who's working frantically to decode what China means when it warns that its military may take "defensive emergency measures" if planes don't identify themselves in the new air defense zone. Or Onodera's South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan Jin: Some of China's zone overlaps with waters off Jeju Island. Or Chuck Hagel, the U.S. defense chief, who got dragged into the controversy and responded, boldly, by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers into the area as a warning to Beijing to back off. When he visits Japan, China and Korea next week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden can expect some pretty testy exchanges.
China's move belies all the talk of its peaceful, magnanimous rise as a world power. A tiny accident or miscalculation in the skies above the disputed islands -- called the Senkakus by Japan and Diaoyu by China and Taiwan, which separately claim them -- could easily spiral out of control, dragging Washington into a clash that would shake the global economy. Instead of being a stabilizer, China is proving to be a provocateur.
It's hard not to wonder if political testosterone has gone to Xi's head. He emerged from China's recent four-day plenum as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. Xi may be especially willing to risk a confrontation with Japan right now in order to distract opponents of his proposed reforms, as well as ordinary Chinese who are growing restless over pollution, income inequality and official corruption. Nothing brings China's 1.3 billion people together so easily as hating the Japanese.
China doesn't deserve all the blame for the precarious state of northeast Asian affairs, of course. That dubious honor must be shared, and owned, by the region's other two newish leaders: Shinzo Abe of Japan and Park Geun Hye of South Korea. It was Tokyo's imprudent decision in September 2012 to buy the disputed islands from a private owner that truly incensed Beijing. The purchase may turn out to be the most expensive $26 million investment a government has ever made.
Abe is an unapologetic revisionist who remains intent on whitewashing Japan's World War II aggression, including the government's role in keeping military sex slaves; flexing Japan's muscles in Asia; and perhaps revising its pacifist constitution. Park rarely misses a chance to hammer Japan about the sins of the past, though the points she scores at home come at the expense of a critical bilateral relationship.
Yet it is China's actions that most risk sparking conflict. They also contradict the spirit of reform and "opening up" repeatedly hailed at the Communist Party's recent plenum. In addition to Japan and Korea, China's air zone is sure to worry officials in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, all of which are embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing. A group of Chinese scholars want Beijing to claim Okinawa, too.
However powerful Xi has become, he's not adding to China's store of "soft power" with such behavior. The country took a big hit abroad for its chintzy $100,000 aid offering to the typhoon-devastated Philippines (international press coverage shamed Beijing into upping the donation to $1.6 million). Its inflammatory new policy will only further alienate neighbors in a region it's seeking to woo away from the U.S.
Biden should take advantage of this dust-up to advance a U.S. "pivot" to Asia that until now has lacked both carrots and sticks. In Tokyo, he should prod Abe to lead his people toward more enlightened engagement with Asia rather than follow his base nationalist instincts. In Seoul, Biden should encourage Park to work with Abe, even if just on trade, the environment, North Korea and the challenges of governing a fast-aging population. The U.S. also should push the case for regular three-way summits between the leaders of Japan, China and Korea no matter what's afoot. Face-to-face meetings can create momentum toward deeper ties.
But Biden's sternest conversation should be with Communist leaders in Beijing. China says its global ambitions are peaceful and war isn't in the national DNA. Great. It says it believes in mutual respect for other countries' domestic affairs. Fine. It says it wants to "make Chinese culture go global." All sounds good. Beijing's recent actions, however, inspire little confidence in its words.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinion expressed is his own