China has one of the largest and most consequential militaries in the world, but how Beijing thinks about its military and makes military decisions is largely a mystery to the outside world. The People's Liberation Army is technically attached to the Chinese Communist Party, rather than to the Chinese government, and scholars often describe it as a "black box" because it is so difficult to understand from the outside.
This week's decision by China to impose a special "air defense identification zone" over international waters was one such mystery. China announced that any foreign flights into the special zone would have to alert Beijing first and file a formal flight plan. The outcome was entirely predictable: The United States immediately violated China's requirement by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers into the "zone," basically a way of announcing that the U.S. would ignore China's requirement. Japan and South Korea also sent in flights. China's "air defense zone" not only failed, it backfired, embarrassing China while further uniting Japan, South Korea and the U.S. against Chinese military assertiveness.
So why did China do it? Why impose an "air defense zone" that was so likely to fail in its most apparent goal of enforcing greater Chinese control over nearby international waters?
There are two different categories of explanation for this bizarre incident. The first is simple incompetence; Chinese leaders did not anticipate that things would work out this poorly for their air defense zone. The second is that perhaps Chinese leaders did foresee this response but went ahead anyway because their primary goal was not actually establishing an air defense zone at all.
For all the importance of China's foreign policy, Chinese leaders tend to be far more concerned with domestic issues. President Xi Jinping has to worry about high-risk economic changes he's making, the increasingly noisy demands of a rising middle class, resurgent nationalism, environmental degradation, dire food safety – the list goes on and on. So, for many China-watchers, it makes more sense to look at China's foreign policy as a byproduct of these domestic issues rather than as foreign policy for the sake of foreign policy.
Robert E. Kelly, a scholar of East Asian international relations at Pusan National University, suggests that the Communist Party was hoping to boost its own internal legitimacy by appearing to challenge Japan. "The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] may not want a conflict with Japan, but it’s been telling Chinese youth for 20+ years that Japan is greatly responsible for the '100 years of humiliation,’ " Kelly writes at his blog on Asian security issues. "So now the CCP is stuck; they have to be tough on Japan – even if they don't want to be – because their citizens demand it."
No one knows for sure what China's leaders are thinking here, but Kelly suspects that the above case is more plausible than military incompetence, belligerence toward Japan or that Xi himself is trying to make a splash.
"The Chinese have always struck me as pretty cautious, even crafty, in managing their rise. It’s true that they're a lot more aggressive since 2009, but I don't see them suddenly becoming reckless," Kelly writes. "I always found that factoid that the [People's Republic of China] spends more on internal than external security to be indicative that CCP is, in fact, very insecure at the top. It’s gotta have an ideology with foreign enemies, otherwise the Chinese people might see the real enemy: the CCP’s corruption, rejection of democracy and unwillingness to admit the horrors of Maoism."
I'm not sure that Chinese citizens are anywhere near labeling the Communist Party as "the real enemy" – even the 1989 student protests called only for the party to reform, not to collapse outright. But it is true that Chinese leaders have to worry very much about popular sentiment these days. Sparking little incidents with Japan is a tried-and-true way to gin up nationalism and get people focused on rallying against Japan – and, thus, behind the Communist Party government.
It's entirely possible that there is some other explanation for China's air defense zone. Maybe Beijing really did want to exert greater control over this vast swath of highly sensitive airspace, and thought it could get Japan and the U.S. to comply. Maybe Chinese leaders earnestly want to show Japan that they're the new power of East Asia. But if we assume that Chinese leaders are rational and smart enough to have anticipated the U.S. reaction, then it would perhaps make the most sense that this was all about boosting internal legitimacy.