A nudge by air in 2013. A probe by sea in 2014. Will China take a crack on land in 2015?
For the sake of world peace, let's hope not. However, China's nudge and probe record, especially over the last two years, should worry diplomats and alert headline writers.
In 2013, China tested Japanese and South Korean political and military reactions by extending its Air Defense Identification Zone over contested islets and maritime boundaries. Tensions spiked as Tokyo and Seoul threatened retaliation.
Beijing's 2014 sally into the South China Sea -- a huge oil exploration ship entering disputed waters off Vietnam's coast -- thoroughly provoked Hanoi. It also stoked fears of Chinese expansionism throughout Southeast Asia, from the Philippines to Singapore and Indonesia.
2013's ADIZ ploy had immediate consequences and strategic implications. Aircraft entering a recognized ADIZ must identify themselves to the national air controllers. If they fail to do so, they risk interception and destruction. Going down in flames is a very immediate consequence.
Japan was the primary strategic target for the ADIZ nudge. The new zone grabbed air space above a disputed chain of Japanese-administered islets northwest of Okinawa. Japan calls them the Senkakus. In China they are the Diaoyu.
Over the last two decades China's Communist government has increasingly emphasized Chinese nationalist political themes. Japanese soldiers in WW2 slaughtered Chinese civilians. Twenty-first century China remembers. Rattling Japan boosts Beijing domestically. However, the ADIZ nudge also included a South Korean fishing reef. China doesn't nudge for fish. It was testing U.S. reactions.
To display support for South Korea and Japan, two unarmed USAF B-52's flew through the new zone, from Guam to South Korea. However, Washington, attempting a diplomatic straddle, urged U.S. commercial aircraft to respect zone. Japan ordered its aircraft to ignore it, in toto.
The radars, surface to air missiles and fighter interceptors enforcing an ADIZ are quite concrete. However, the perceived impermanence of planes rapidly transiting a zone -- as long as they aren't shot down -- gives cooler heads maneuver space.
2014's South China Sea scrape challenged cooler heads. The drilling rig China sent into the disputed Paracel Islands anchored and set up shop. There it was, seeking oil. When Beijing dismissed Hanoi's ferocious objections, Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard and fishing boats waged a sea battle with water cannon and boat-to-boat ramming.
China withdrew the rig; mayhem remained restrained. That's why the action classifies as a probe.
However, less violent sea encounters have sparked shooting wars. The two Communist neighbors fought a short but brutal border war in 1979, with Vietnam killing some 20,000 Chinese soldiers. Beijing and Hanoi remain tight-lipped about that war. China does not tout a defeat. Hanoi does not boast. It avoids provoking its enormous neighbor. However, the Vietnamese tersely state that 1979 demonstrates their will to resist militarily Chinese domination.
2014's restrained clash in the South China Sea wasn't just a confrontation over an oil field. It embodied the dangerous clash of interests and wills between China and Vietnam.
China's goals extend beyond Vietnam. Its 9-Dash-Line demarcating claims plunges south, through Vietnamese, Filipino, Malaysian waters toward Singapore and the Straits of Malacca. Indeed, China is bullying the Philippines, demanding reefs within the 9-Dash-Line.
On an endless train of ships (it looks that way from the air), African and Southwest Asian resources feeding China's miracle economy and supporting Japan's mature one cross the Indian Ocean and flow through the Straits of Malacca. China's maritime probes signal its intent to prevent another nation from severing that supply line.
China has already deployed troops on contested islands. China seized islets in the 1970s and 1980s, but China's neighbors now regard it as expansionary and suspect it seeks air and naval bases. It has begun building an airfield on a contested islet. It's just a speck of land, a splinter, but Chinese strategists have a deserved reputation for playing a very long game.