What We’ve Learned from China’s Air Defense Zone (so Far)

December 9, 2013

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Last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Japan, China, and South Korea. The agenda of the previously planned trip—trade promotion—was largely scrapped. Instead, Biden spent most of his time in the region doing damage control, after China’s unilateral declaration of controlled air space over the East China Sea. Instead of discussing trade and financial liberalization, the vice president fielded questions about America’s resolve from anxious officials in Tokyo and Seoul. While Biden was in Beijing, China’s officials undoubtedly made a similar appraisal of U.S. fortitude, albeit from the opposite perspective.

China’s declaration on November 23rd of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, has revealed much about China’s leaders and their priorities. What we have learned from this episode should cause analysts to recalibrate their assumptions about China’s intentions and behavior.

1. Regarding East Asia, China’s leaders don’t have much use for diplomacy. China’s declaration of an ADIZ was sudden and unilateral, done without consulting its neighbors. This contrasts with Japan’s ADIZ declaration, which, although protested by Taiwan, was at least done with prior consultation with Taiwanese authorities. South Korea’s adjustment of its ADIZ, done in response to China’s declaration, was also done after consultation with China and Japan, a difference noted by the U.S. State Department.

One might presume that the objective of Beijing’s declaration is to improve China’s awareness of activity in the air space to its east. The best way to accomplish that goal, especially with ostensibly non-hostile neighbors, would be to negotiate information-sharing agreements, air space management procedures, “hot line” arrangements, and other such cooperative measures. If China’s main concern was air space awareness, multilateral cooperation would be the most effective means of achieving that awareness.

China’s rejection of this approach in favor of a unilateral air control declaration reveals several disturbing conclusions about China’s decision-makers. First, rather than an attempt to improve air space awareness, the declaration is foremost another act of “salami-slicing” in the region, a gradual program to establish “facts on the ground” that Beijing hopes will eventually add up to recognition of Chinese sovereignty over disputed territory in the region (Matthew Hipple recently explained at War on the Rocks why China’s declaration more closely resembles a sovereignty grab instead of a true ADIZ). China’s hoped-for gains come at the expense of the sovereignty and security of China’s neighbors. If true, China would increasingly resemble a revisionist adversary, albeit a careful, slow-moving one.

China’s dismissal of diplomacy indicates that its leaders have high confidence in China’s strengthening position in the region; why bother with negotiations when the trends are so favorable? China’s stiff-arm of ASEAN over negotiations for a code of conduct for dispute resolution in the South China Sea is another example of Beijing’s opinion of diplomacy with its neighbors.

2. China’s leaders care about more than economic growth. Many analysts point to deep economic interdependence as a reason to dismiss the possibility of a major power conflict in East Asia. China’s actions make that a questionable conclusion. If maximizing economic growth and reducing China’s dependence on vulnerable crude oil imports from the Middle East were the paramount objectives of China’s leaders, why are they stepping up China’s territorial assertions and in doing so, inciting security competitions in the East and South China Seas? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there may be enough crude oil under the South China Sea for sixty years of Chinese consumption. Oil under the East China Sea could potentially supply China’s needs for another fifteen years. If China’s dominant concerns were its economic growth rate and energy security, it would seem to have a strong interest in settling its maritime disputes with its neighbors (as it has done with its land borders to its west and north). It could then cooperate with these neighbors to exploit the enormous hydrocarbon resources under the two seas, reasonably assuring its future economic and security interests.

But, instead of pursuing that seemingly rational “profit maximizing” strategy, China is engaging in persistent territorial “salami-slicing,” accepting the attendant risks of brinkmanship and possible confrontation. China’s actions reveal that other goals, such as achieving control over claimed territory, are at least as important to China’s leaders as economic growth.

3. China’s leaders don’t seem to care about an anti-China backlash in the region. Before 2008, Chinese “smile diplomacy” appeared to predominate across the region. Since then, “snarl diplomacy” has been more in use. The result has been a backlash against China and an accelerating security competition in the region. An arms race in the region appears underway, with submarines as a major focus of the competition. Non-Chinese defense spending in the region is expected to jump 55% in 2013-2018, compared to the prior five-year period.

These trends have been visible to China’s leaders for several years. Indeed, it seems clear that China’s assertiveness was a major factor prompting the return of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party in Japan, confirmed in two strong election results in 2012 and 2013. Abe’s defense policy has focused on the Chinese threat, with budget increases forthcoming and military forces now repositioning to Japan’s southwest. The U.S. is renewing its military links with the Philippines and slowly expanding them in Vietnam. And India is expanding its security ties with ASEAN and in East Asia. A growing list of security linkages among China’s neighbors offer yet more indicators that countries in the region are hedging against China’s assertions.

This clear security backlash did not deter China from declaring its East China Sea ADIZ. Indeed, the declaration very likely damaged China’s relations with South Korea, one of the few examples of recent Chinese diplomatic success. In response to the declaration, South Korea, Japan, and the United States have increased their military air patrols and intelligence-gathering in the East China Sea. China’s actions are worsening China’s security.

Based on the backlash that had been building for years before the ADIZ announcement, further reinforcement of U.S. and allied military activity in East Asia should hardly have been a surprise to China’s leaders. Yet, they proceeded with the declaration anyway. Why? These leaders may be possessed by a quasi-Marxist belief in historical inevitability, a confidence in the “correlation of forces” trending in China’s favor. Or, as the next section will explore, there may be other forces compelling China’s leaders to make decisions that seem so unfavorable for China’s security.

4. Domestic nationalism may be driving China’s external policy. None of the explanations for this Chinese “own goal” are reassuring. If the ADIZ declaration was a product of mid-level bureaucratic machinery at work, it would mean that China’s top leaders don’t have control over the policy decisions of their government, in particular those taken by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). If top-level leaders made this decision without an appreciation for the backlash it would catalyze in the U.S. government and across the region, it would indicate that these leaders don’t understand their counterparts. In that case, U.S. and allied leaders should not assume that China’s leaders will act competently during a crisis.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that China’s leaders made the ADIZ decision in order to placate nationalist factions in the PLA, the government, or society at large. This explanation is no more comforting than those listed above. It would imply that Chinese “hawks” can at least occasionally drive China’s external policy, with all the risks that accompany such moves. That would seem to be a recipe for action-reaction cycles in a region where nationalism is now on the rise. It may also mean that China’s leaders fear that the other bases of their political legitimacy—such as the Communist Party’s moral position in Chinese society or the government’s ability to deliver material benefits—have faded away. If so, these leaders may have concluded that the manipulation of nationalist sentiment may be one of their only remaining levers of social control.

East Asia has avoided a major power conflict for seven decades because the presence of U.S. military power has maintained the region’s stability. But, tensions in the region are now rising. The proximate issue in dispute is the sovereignty of a few uninhabited islets in the East and South China Seas. The fundamental issue is the rapid expansion of China’s power and how the United States and China’s neighbors will cope with this sudden upending of East Asia’s security balance. China’s rise is coinciding with a perception of U.S. decline and an appearance that Washington has become disillusioned with the global security responsibilities that it has long taken on. Such perceptions have likely influenced decision-making in Beijing, with increased risk in the region now the result.

China’s sudden declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea has revealed much about the leadership in Beijing. The ADIZ declaration was not a reasonable policy to enhance China’s security; if China truly wanted better awareness over the air space to its east, it could have chosen to cooperate with its neighbors to get that information. Instead, the ADIZ declaration is another act of territorial “salami-slicing,” which will only accelerate the security competition between China and its neighbors. We can further conclude that economic development and energy security are not the only goals of China’s leaders; if they were, China’s leaders could have taken other paths that would not have placed these goals at risk. U.S. and allied policymakers should thus not assume that economic interdependence will always deter conflict in the region. It should also be no comfort to post-modern observers in the West that nationalism could be a significant driver of China’s external policy, and possibly a prop supporting the internal legitimacy of China’s government.

Military tensions among the three largest economies in the world are now rising. The underlying security trends in East Asia suggest that the crisis over China’s ADIZ will not be a one-time event, especially if China continues to act like a revisionist power. Regrettably, the era of interstate conflict may not be over just yet.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


Photo credit: poter.simon (adapted by War on the Rocks)

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6 thoughts on “What We’ve Learned from China’s Air Defense Zone (so Far)

  1. The author left out the motivation that nature abhors a vacuum and the total, abject failure of Barack Obama’s leadership has projected a vacuum of perceived weakness the Chicom leadership could not resist even if they wished to do so.

  2. We need to stop pretending this issue has anything to do with who owns these islands. We should view this as China attempting to seize vast portions of sea territory as they are doing. The US should step firmly into this security vacuum with a mobile Aegis ashore unit stationed on the Senkakus and/or a Marine Battalion with dedicated Naval and Air support to back them up. The Senkakus should be made into the example of American resolve to push back against an aggressive, provocative and expansionist China. By failing to act at Scarborough Shoal or the Senkakus to date the US is simply letting China’s ambitions and strength grow to the next stage which will be ever more costly to roll back.

  3. This analysis misses alllllllllll the history that ADIZs were developed by the U.S. Below is the article I published in American Thinker last week: http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/12/energy_drives_asian_military_confrontation.html#ixzz2n0lO9mrX

    December 3, 2013
    Energy Drives Asian Military Confrontation
    By Chriss Street
    China’s Ministry of Defense on November 30th at 10 AM local time began enforcing an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone, which now covers a huge off-shore expanse that includes the disputed oil-rich Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Forced to rely the Middle East oil for electrical production, Asian energy costs are surging and supply has become unstable due to continuing Arab Spring turmoil. With American domestic energy costs falling as supplies surge due to the boom in fracking for shale oil and gas, Chinese manufacturers are becoming economically uncompetitive on a cost basis compared to the U.S. producers. With China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea equally desperate to save jobs by exploiting potentially cheap and abundant off-shore oil, energy economics will drive military confrontations in Asia.
    The Chinese claim the discovery and control of the Diaoyu Islands from the 14th Century, but Japan took control of the islands from 1895 until its surrender to the U.S. at the end of World War II. During the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands after 1945, it was discovered that oil reserves might be found under the sea near the islands. In anticipation of the turnover of the Senkaku Islands, Japan declared a 100 mile ADIZ around the islands in 1969. Since reverting back to Japanese control under the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement, sovereignty around the islands has been disputed by the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and South Korea.
    The new Chinese rules require that aircraft must ask for permission to fly in the ADIZ, aircraft in the zone must identify and keep in communication with Chinese authorities, all aircraft must “follow the instructions of the administrative organ of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone”, and warn that “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.” In response to thesenew Chinese edits, the U.S. flew two unarmed B-52 bombers from Guam on November 25th without notification. Then on 29th, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force scrambled Su-30 and J-11 warplanes in response to 10 flights of Japanese F-15s, E-767s and P-3s; U.S. P-3s and EP-3s; and South Korean fighter jets flying through the ADIZ.
    The 1919 Paris Convention for the Regulation of Aerial Navigation recognized the principal of freedom of the skies as an extension of “freedom of the high seas” that limited territorial sea claims of coastal nations to 12 nautical miles off their shores. The Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944 updated air rights, but it was the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) created the framework for exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in waters previously regarded as high seas. The three basic obligations of the treaty: (1) the duty to refrain from the unlawful threat or use of force; (2) the duty to have “due regard” to the rights of others to use the sea; and (3) the duty to observe applicable obligations under other treaties or rules of international law.
    The United States extended what had been its 12 nautical mile territorial sea into a “high seas” Air Defense Identification Zone in response to heightened tensions with the Soviet Union caused by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. America claims continental ADIZs extending 300 nautical miles in some Atlantic areas and more than 400 nautical miles in Southern California.The United States also maintains ADIZs off the coast of Alaska extending out at least 350 nautical miles into the Bering Sea, similar distance into the Arctic Sea off Alaska’s northern coast, 250 nautical miles around Guam and up to 250 nautical miles north of the Hawaiian Islands.
    The U.S. from 1870 to 1970 dominated manufacturing and won two wars on the back of oil and gas prices that averaged a third of the world’s price. But shrinking domestic production after 1972 destroyed America’s energy-cost advantage by the 1980s. Once expanded Middle East oil production equalized energy costs for the world, American manufacturers began relocating jobs to Asia to stay competitively in lower labor costs.
    But U.S. natural gas prices have fallen from $15 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) in 2000 to about $3.50 mcf today. This compares to rising natural gas prices that are $10mcf in Europe, $12 mcf in China and $17 mcf in Japan. If this cost advantage holds or widens as America exploits its spectacular abundance of shale to frack for oil and gas, Asian employment will fall as huge amounts of manufacturing relocates to the United States.
    No country has more risk from high energy prices than China, which passed the U.S. in 2010 as the world’s largest manufacturer. China passed Russia to grab the number two spot behind the U.S. in defense spending. Fearing the Peoples’ Liberation Army would become the dominant military power in East Asia, Japan has launched a crash rearmament drive that by next year will have ballooned defense outlays past France and U.K. to the number four spot, just behind Russia.
    The width of China’s new ADIZ does not extend beyond the international EEZ standard. But according to Stratfor Reports: “Beijing is testing U.S. responses in the Western Pacific, as China attempts to shape a new maritime balance in the area. All sides will use the current standoff to recalibrate the balance of power over energy and maritime geopolitics that, much like during the Cold War.”
    Japan retaliated early this year to China’s growing military assertiveness by extending its ADIZ around the Senkaku Iislands by another 15 miles. The current western border of the zone extends at its closest point to just 81 miles off the Chinese mainland. In this escalating tit for tat, between July and September the Japanese military was forced to scramble fighter jets 80 times in response to Chinese warplane and drone intrusions.
    Beijing seems distressed enough about the potential loss of millions of manufacturing jobs that they are willing to threaten the use of military force to assert a sphere of influence that will capture most of the offshore oil and gas drilling rights in the East and South China seas. Facing U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea security agreements, China is employing tools like the ADIZ to force regional competitors to readjust their behavior in light of China’s ambitions and naval heft. China’s confrontations may not be intended to lead to a clash, but when armed and dangerous nations play chicken with modern weapons, the risk of a military miscalculation and accidental war accelerates.
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  4. West media destroyed their reputation almost overnight, which Chinese government has been trying for decades and never succeeded. Australia Government plays fast and loose with trust and truth.

  5. The Chinese ADIZ is meant to contest international law around right of free passage through international airspace. Yes … It is a territorial grab also but most importantly it was a public test to force the US to choose a side between Japan and. China. China clearly demonstrated that the US despite its mumbled softly worded objections would ask its commercial airlines to comply and most notably absent we’re demands that China modify the ADIZ rules or rescind the zone. It was a public display of brinkmanship times to coordinate with Biden’s visit so that the US could receive a proper talking to in person and appear as was noted in Biden’s behaviour “subdued” after the closed meeting. The Chinese like the show and capitulation over the phone would not nearly have the same effect. This is just the most recent public display of what the administration calls a new balance of super powers. As if a party to this narrative playing out that the US is falling and. China is rising to take its place. The Chinese don’t think its destiny but they do believe that they have co-opted enough support from Fortune 500 company leaders and pumped enough money into think tanks that their financial stick is well defined without anyone having to feel it. What we are seeing is the greatest transfer of wealth in Human history and until certain people realize that this goes beyond greed and affects the security and continuation of the free world nothing will change. The flow will continue unabated, China will use their financial muscle to tighten their grip ever further knocking of one target at a time while the rest fear China’s rath both economically and physically. Although the west could not occupy China they could destroy its capabilites if they were foced to. China would then implode on its own.