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

PLA AF fighter

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)

CCBot/2.0 (https://commoncrawl.org/faq/)