25 November 2013

Watch This Space: China’s New Air Defense Zone

Andrew S. Erickson, “Watch This Space: China’s New Air Defense Zone,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2013.

Effective 10 a.m. on Nov. 23, Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering a significant portion of the East China Sea. The Chinese air force soon conducted its first patrol in the zone, with two large reconnaissance aircraft monitoring the area, early warning aircraft supporting and fighters providing cover.

In its official statement announcing the establishment of the ADIZ, China’s Ministry of National Defense stated that it would require flight plan, transponder, radio and logo identification for all aircraft operating in the zone. The official Xinhua news agency elaborates: “The new rules state that all aircraft flying in the zone should report their flight plans to China’s Foreign Ministry and the Civil Aviation Administration. If an aircraft doesn’t supply its flight plan, China’s armed forces will adopt emergency defensive measures in response. The announcement states that China’s Ministry of National Defense has full administrative rights over the zone.” PLAAF spokesman Shen Jinke adds that, “The military is capable of effectively controlling the zone.”

Chinese experts are already on record insisting that in imposing such comprehensive rules, Beijing is merely emulating other states. Yet Beijing’s absolutist, all-inclusive stance clearly raises a major problem: China’s East China Sea ADIZ overlaps significantly with Japan’s ADIZ, and cover the disputed islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. While China and South Korea enjoy better relations and a military hotline to facilitate communication, China’s ADIZ also reportedly overlapswith the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone to the west of Jeju Island. Chinese, Japanese, South Korea and American military aircraft all operate in the overlapping airspace.

Despite boilerplate disclaimers to the contrary, Beijing’s action appears targeted precisely at stoking tension between China and Japan, and putting pressure on the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Particularly problematic is the fact that official Chinese statements imply that Beijing intends to use military force if necessary to ensure that all aircraft comply with Beijing’s instructions within its declared ADIZ. This is an unrealistic expectation, as an ADIZ is not synonymous with national airspace[n8] .

Beijing’s action prompted a pointed response from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who emphasized that “Freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace are essential to prosperity, stability, and security in the Pacific. We don’t support efforts by any State to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace. The United States does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace. We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing .”

In an equally prompt statement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared that Washington was “deeply concerned” by Beijing’s announcement. Hagel characterized the ADIZ announcement as “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and a “unilateral action [that] increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Hagel stressed that Beijing’s action would “not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.” He closed by emphasizing that “The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S. Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

A Volatile Flashpoint

Beijing’s ADIZ announcement is directly connected with what is arguably East Asia’s most dangerous dispute. While China and Japan have multiple competing claims in the energy- and fish-rich East China Sea, the islands represent their one territorial dispute, and are hence a flashpoint of tremendous significance. They represent important sacred symbols of sovereignty for both Japanese and Chinese. For nations defined mostly by ethnicity such as Japan, China and the Koreas, mere rocks can make an indivisible claim on national efforts in a way that such symbols no longer do in multicultural Western nations that define themselves more in terms of ideas.

The history of the disputed islands straddles the worst fault lines of Sino-Japanese history. It includes complexity arguably injected by U.S. dominance and pursuit of Cold War priorities. The islands’ ambiguous position lies at the center of trends in East Asia—primarily China’s rise and Japan’s corresponding decline in power vis-à-vis China—that are challenging its existing power structure and norms. The U.S. is directly involved, as the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty obligates Washington to defend the islands from any Chinese military actions given Tokyo’s administration of them.

From a military standpoint, the islands themselves are in a very volatile position. Small, isolated, uninhabitable and unsuitable for the use of defensive weapons systems because of their terrain, they are difficult if not impossible to defend and hard to exert control over symbolically or otherwise. Yet they are easy to attack from afar (though any forces surrounding them are less so). This dual dynamic yields what strategists call an “offense-dominant” environment, one that is inherently unstable and prone to tension and arms racing. The many sources of potential volatility call for caution and moderation from all parties concerned. Any deliberate efforts to stoke tensions would be extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Together with other regional flashpoints, this creates a logical common denominator for Asia-Pacific policy: Neither the use of force, or the threat of force, should be allowed to alter the status quo.

Past as Prologue?

Many other nations, including Japan, have declared ADIZs. There is nothing inherently problematic with announcing one; indeed, it would be surprising if China never did so. The key issue is how China defines, patrols and invokes its ADIZ. Here, there are already problematic signs, and Chinese officials have chosen thus far to deny rather than acknowledge them.

Presently, foreign observers worry that the East China Sea ADIZ will become part of a larger pattern of Beijing’s refusing to adhere fully to existing international norms and standards even as it pursues the benefits of the system whose functioning they underwrite. Chinese international legal behavior vis-à-vis the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea offers examples of Beijing promoting an extreme minority position with an excessive notion of a coastal state’s right to control waterspace beyond its territorial waters (pdf). Such overly expansive approaches are not constructive for the functioning of the maritime commons, and in fact contradict China’s recent dispatching of intelligence gathering vessels to undisputed U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones off Guam and Hawaii  and as well as its pursuit of increasing access to the Arctic.

These factors, combined with assertive official rhetoric, contribute significantly to outside observers’ worries that China’s rise may have significant disruptive and destabilizing implications. Endless official recitation from Beijing of nebulous platitudes, such as that “China will never seek hegemony,” fails to address these substantial, substantive concerns.

Wu Jianmin, executive vice chairman of China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, articulates a key challenge for Beijing in this regard: “Soft power and discourse power have become the most discussed topics in Chinese media and academic circles. Both ‘powers’ cannot be acquired from thin air, but from the recognition of the majority of the world. Only when China’s advocates are able to attract world attention can China enjoy both kinds of power. …if disgust and resentment are felt when China speaks out, then the more China speaks, the worse the outcome will be.” This represents cogent recognition that merely brandishing hard power in the form of military might and shrill unilateral pronouncements will ultimately not serve Chinese interests.

These factors raise the stakes both for Beijing’s conduct with respect to its East China Sea ADIZ, and any other ADIZs that it may announce. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun has stated that “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.” How and under what circumstances Beijing chooses to do so will be watched closely by China’s neighbors and the world, and will impact China’s ability to rise peacefully and pursue its interests effectively.


Click here for details of PLA Air Force’s first patrol in ECS ADIZ and Chinese experts’ discussion of zone’s significance.

Extensive, frequently-updated Chinese-language articles and graphics concerning the ECS ADIZ that Beijing has announced are available here.

Statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone may be accessed here.

Click here for PRC Defense Spokesman’s responses to questions on Beijing’s announcement of an East China Sea ADIZ.

Official Chinese announcements and top American analysis of China and ADIZ issues is available here.