China's Game of Chicken; Beijing's Creeping Aggression Signals a Challenge to U.S. Presence in the Asian Pacific

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China's recent declaration of an air-defense identification zone extending to territories it does not control is just the latest example of its jurisdictional creep that reflects a larger strategy to supplant the United States as the pre-eminent power in Asia. Yet President Obama's administration has responded to China's aggression with words of cautious criticism, but no castigatory step, not even delaying Vice President Joe Biden's Beijing visit. China gave no ground to Mr. Biden during his Dec. 4-5 trip.

Worse still, with its advisory to U.S. airlines to respect China's new air-defense identification zone, Washington has opened a rift with ally Japan at a time when the imperative is for presenting a united front against an escalatory act that even Mr. Biden admits is a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea, causing significant apprehension in the region.

Japan has asked its carriers to ignore China's demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese airspace. Washington is signaling that if Beijing backed away from this unusual demand, it may be willing to live with the Chinese air-defense identification zone.

Let's be clear: At stake in the East China Sea are not just some flyspeck islands, but regional power balance, a rules-based order, freedom of navigation of the skies and seas, and access to maritime resources, including seabed minerals. If China gets its way, the path to a Sino-centric Asia would open.

As China accumulates economic and military power, it has increasingly taken to flexing its muscles, ratcheting up territorial disputes with multiple neighbors and seeking to alter the status quo in Asia through surprise actions.

Irredentist China's incremental encroachments into neighbors' borderlands can be described as a salami-slice strategy - or what Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong of China's People's Liberation Army last May called a cabbage strategy. This involves asserting a claim, launching furtive incursions into the coveted territory, and erecting - one at a time - cabbage-style multiple layers of security around a contested area so as deny access to an opponent.

The air-defense identification zone establishment - China's latest cabbage-style security-layer move - was cleverly timed to coincide with the unveiling of the interim Iran nuclear deal in Geneva so as to take advantage of the U.S. and international distraction. Shrewdly timing an action and achieving a major tactical surprise against an adversary are key elements in Beijing's strategic doctrine.

China's action is a reminder that Mr. Obama must turn his attention from the preoccupations of the Middle East to the potentially combustible situation in East Asia. To make the promise of his Asian pivot real, he must be willing to assert U.S. leadership in order to help tame China's belligerence and reassure allies.

Sending two unarmed B-52 bombers on routine runs through the Chinese air-defense identification zone was tokenism that cannot obscure the need for crafting a credible response. Unfortunately, Mr. …