04 February 2014

Chinese Views and Commentary on the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ECS ADIZ)

This thoughtful piece benefits greatly from Michael Swaine’s rarely-equaled examination of original sources and attention to detail.

To move beyond political sloganeering and achieve truly useful, constructive scholarship and analysis on this important and potentially destabilizing topic, it is necessary to address directly the vital issues that Swaine outlines in a meticulous, measured fashion.

Further nebulous, negative, unsubstantiated rhetoric along the lines of “The prefect should not allow himself to commit arson while depriving the people of the right to light their lamps, because all should be equal” or “The zone does not aim at any specific country or target, nor does it constitute a threat to any country or region” will not contribute to understanding, for reasons that Swaine explains cogently.

Swaine has set the gold standard for intelligent, constructive discussion, and it is to be hoped that more will meet them in the future. It would be great to see Chinese writingsnot to mention policy statementsthat meet such a vital standard, and I hope that readers can point them out to the extent that they are/become available.

In the meantime, if you have time for nothing else, be sure at very least to read the excerpted text below:

Michael D. Swaine, “Chinese Views and Commentary on the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ECS ADIZ),” China Leadership Monitor, February 2014.

China’s establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone has incited strong criticisms and increased regional tensions. Both authoritative and non-authoritative sources argue consistently and often emphatically that the zone is intended to improve safety and stability, and is not directed at any particular country or target. Yet, the vague language used to describe the zone as well as the extensive and often hostile rhetoric toward Japan suggests that such assertions are incorrect and disingenuous at best. While China has every right to set up an ADIZ, its failure to reassure other nations as well as clearly define the enforcement and intended impacts of the zone has undermined any purported stabilizing intentions and damaged China’s larger strategic interests.

On November 23, 2013, the Chinese government for the first time publicly announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), a portion of airspace contiguous to (or sometimes partly including) a country’s territorial airspace within which the identification, location and control of foreign aircraft occurs. Such zones presumably serve national security interests, primarily by providing adequate early warning of aircraft entering or flying near a country’s territorial airspace.1

The United States established the first ADIZ in the 1950s, to reduce the risk of a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. The United States currently has five zones (East Coast, West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam) and operates two more with Canada.2 During the Cold War, Washington also defined the ADIZs claimed by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.3 China’s new ADIZ covers a significant part of the East China Sea (ECS) contiguous to the Chinese coastline and overlaps in some areas with the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It also includes the airspace above several islands, rocks and reefs that are currently under dispute with Japan and South Korea, including the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands (hereafter referred to as the S/D islands) and the Socotra Rock (known as Suyan Jiao in Chinese and Ieodo in Korean)4, respectively ….

Regarding the implementation of the ECS ADIZ, authoritative Chinese sources offer no  explicit definition of when and how Beijing might respond to aircraft that do not comply  with the rules governing the zone, beyond a vague reference to the use of “defensive emergency measures.” … It would serve Beijing’s interests to clarify and affirm this procedure more explicitly.

Although rarely mentioned by authoritative sources, it is clear that many Chinese—and almost certainly the Chinese military—regard U.S. and Japanese surveillance flights within the ECS ADIZ as an example of “abnormal” behavior that requires some type of presumably more vigorous response. Although Beijing has long regarded such flights near China’s coastline as unacceptable and in violation of its interpretation of international law, it remains unclear how the presence of the ECS ADIZ might affect its response to such flights in the future. This also requires clarification. Serious problems will likely emerge with Japan and the U.S. if Beijing intends to use the ECS ADIZ as a justification for more aggressive pushback against such flights.

Another potentially dangerous consequence of Beijing’s lack of clarity with regard to the ECS ADIZ issue concerns overlapping ADIZs, especially regarding airspace above the disputed S/D islands. The failure of Chinese authorities to explicitly state whether the new ADIZ will result in increased challenges to Japanese aircraft operating over the islands, along with Japan’s refusal to engage in talks with Beijing regarding the issue, arguably increases the chances of dangerous incidents occurring in that area in the future.

Overall, our examination of Chinese views toward the ECS ADIZ indicates that while both authoritative and non-authoritative Chinese sources argue consistently and often emphatically that the zone is intended to strengthen safety and preserve stability and is not directed at any particular country or target, in fact the vague language used to describe the zone as well as the extensive (and often hostile) attention to Japan paid by many Chinese sources suggests that such assertions are incorrect and disingenuous at best. While Beijing has every right to establish an ADIZ in the East China Sea and elsewhere along its territorial borders, it also has the responsibility to define as clearly and honestly as possible the operation and intended impact of any such zone. In this instance, the timing of China’s announcement, during a period of already high tensions with Tokyo, along with the failure to clearly reassure other nations regarding the manner in which Beijing will enforce the zone, have undoubtedly undermined the purported intention of the zone and arguably damaged Beijing’s larger strategic interests in improving its relationship with other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. This entire episode suggests that Beijing’s management of at least some highly sensitive foreign national security issues is dangerously unsophisticated. 

For the full text of one of the articles cited in this study, see 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.