Singapore, 30 November 2013
Arguments regarding who has the right to fly where and when is nothing new in the aviation world. For example, air space control issues have been acute over Cyprus for a number of years with rival air traffic controllers from the Greek and Turkish sides of the island providing conflicting information to aircraft, increasing the risk of collision in a crowded airspace. So why is China’s declaration of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea evoking such frenzied response from the US, Japan and South Korea? Why are the other nations of South East Asia reacting against the move to enforce the new ADIZ by China?
What is an ADIZ? They are a legacy of World War II that requires all aircraft intending to enter a designated area to first provide identification and location information to the host country so that it can be determined whether they are a threat to national security or not. Aircraft failing to do so may be considered hostile, potentially leading to their being intercepted, forced to land, or in extremis being shot down. ADIZs are unilaterally declared by nations and no global treaties or agreements define their extent or the rules that apply within such a zone. Further, they are not legally binding, but are customarily adhered to by other nations. It is important to note that an ADIZ is not a territorial claim but is intended to provide a nation with early notification of the location of foreign civilian aircraft entering its national airspace. National airspace typically extends only to 12 nautical miles over open water, the same as a country’s territorial waters. ADIZs have been established so far by more than 20 countries, predominantly ones with maritime borders, and traffic within those zones have so far been conducted without any difficulties.
China announced its new East China Sea ADIZ on Saturday, 23 November. It extends out around 500 kilometres from the nation’s coastline, covers a wide swathe of the East China Sea, and overlaps the ADIZ declared by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The declaration of this new zone by China is different in some critical aspects. The most obvious difference is that it overlaps Japan’s ADIZ in the crucial area where both nations claim sovereignty over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Therefore, it appears to have been crafted to be purposely contentious and deliberately provocative. Aircraft crossing the overlapping airspace face a situation of either having to notify both the nations, or facing the probability of interception by one or the other nation. This is not a conducive situation for peaceful air movements. The second peculiar aspect of the Chinese ADIZ is that it requires all civilian aircraft entering it to identify themselves, even if they are only passing through the zone with no intent to enter Chinese national airspace. The fundamental premise of an ADIZ is the advance notice of the intention of a foreign aircraft to enter a sovereign state’s national air space. No other declared ADIZs require this kind of notification. The Chinese have also demanded that all non-commercial aircraft, meaning military aircraft, entering the zone also adhere to the notification requirements. These unilateral demands have led to universal condemnation of the Chinese actions.
A Dangerous Speck of Air space
If one goes by international precedent, the action by China should fall within the bounds of reason. However, the boundaries that have been drawn and the stricter enforcement rules made certain that it would be questioned immediately. On Tuesday, 26 November the US Air Force flew two B-52 bombers from Guam through the ADIZ, without prior permission from China. The bombers were said to be unarmed and on a previously planned exercise mission. The Chinese did not attempt to intercept them. The two major Japanese airlines—Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways—had initially cited passenger safety as a reason and stated that they would comply with the new requirements. However, under pressure from the Japanese Government, they have stopped sending flight details to the Chinese authorities and conducted flights through the ADIZ. These actions also were not contested by China. The international aviation community has requested clarification of China’s intentions since the air space concerned is international in nature and overflights over sovereign territory are not in the equation. Subsequently Japanese fighter aircraft have also flown in the contested air space while China has also launched its own fighters and early warning aircraft into the area.
Irrespective of the muted Chinese response, at least for the time being, the new zone raises the risk of confrontation through misunderstanding and miscalculation on both sides. The Chinese declaration of the new ADIZ is like the last straw on the camel’s back for most of its neighbours who have been discomfited by the manner in which China has dealt with issues of bilateral disagreement. China’s approach to maritime disputes have been to resort to the overt display of force as it has repeatedly demonstrated in the South China Sea. However, in the face of a concerted condemnation from the international community and defiance from those directly affected, China has so far only resorted to a rhetorical fight back, asking Japan to revoke its own ADIZ requirements if it was asking China to do the same. It has so far sidestepped the question of what it would do to enforce the new ADIZ rules. This leads one to believe that China did not think through the reactions that would be forthcoming, especially from the US. This factor is further indicated by the absence of any aggressive grandstanding against the US in their press releases after the ADIZ instructions had ben defied.
The Whys and Wherefores
There is no doubt that the Chinese action is premeditated. However, what is not clear is whether the aim was to escalate the longstanding dispute with Japan and thus test the veracity of the US intention to pivot to the Pacific; or to finally confront the US in the western Pacific in an effort to alter the current unilateral power equation to a bilateral domain as a prelude to claiming equal status with the US as a global power. In either case, the Chinese seem to have thrown down the gauntlet to the US. The Senkaku islands at the root of the issue of the ADIZ, has been administered by Japan since the late 19th century. Although China re-staked its claim to the islands in early 1970, it was only after 2008 that it initiated assertive actions, making regular incursions into the disputed territories, seas, and air space. The US had been prompted to issue warnings that it considered the area Japanese and that it was covered under the US-Japan mutual security pact. It seems that China has decided to question the US commitment.
The ultimate Chinese intention is to push a war-weary US out of the South and East China Sea, subtly probing to see whether or not the political will exists in the US to risk a confrontation in Asia. The US reaction of sending two bombers to flout the ADIZ rules clearly indicates that the nature of the question has been understood and that the quality of the challenge is being analysed. A lot hinges on the further actions by both nations. The rest of Asia is watching to see whether or not the US has the will and the staying power to resist Chinese attempts at regional hegemony. The danger is that any overtly offensive action to show determination by either party risks deteriorating the situation beyond a peacefully retrievable point and avoiding a real armed clash. If even a minor incident takes place, the escalation could be real and rapid.
The third corner in the primary triangular equation is Japan. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is unashamedly nationalistic and is determined not to be cowed down by his more powerful neighbour. At the same time he also does not want to be overly influenced by the private warnings that the US have delivered asking him to lower the rhetoric that has been increasing political tensions. He is also keen to alter the Japanese constitution so that the country could shift from a purely defensive military stance to having the capability to use force if required. An incident, accidental or intentional, and subsequent escalation over the new Chinese ADIZ would provide the catalyst to enable such a move. This something that the US may not particularly want, especially at this juncture in the difficult times that is unfolding in the China Sea.
Overall the Chinese efforts to strengthen its claims over the East China Sea have, at least for the time being, backfired. The flight of the two US bombers went unquestioned, as did flights by other nations. It could be surmised that China did not cater for such a contingency and is unwilling to risk further escalation and/or unable to counter them with military might. The Chinese declaration of the ADIZ has also had the unintended effect of uniting its neighbours. Although there is very little love lost between the two, both Japan and South Korea were unanimous in their criticism and the Sino-Korean relationship, traditionally good, has taken a hard hit. In the broader Asia-Pacific region, China’s attempts at assuaging concerns regarding its ‘creeping assertiveness’, so far somewhat contained through financial diplomacy based on massive aid, have also become strained. It could further worsen if the ADIZ is actively enforced.  
The US Stake
The long-drawn wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan have left the US weary with war fatigue and a distinct distaste for further foreign military adventures. The Obama administration has been reluctant to even threaten military action in the past few years, as the messy draw-down in Afghanistan continues. Therefore, the current Chinese initiative there is much more at stake for the US than merely its treaty obligation to Japan. For sure, it has to stand behind Japan in the dispute regarding the islands and also let China know this unequivocally. At the same time it has to contain Mr Abe from ratcheting up the already palpable tension. All of Asia-Pacific is watching this balancing act and will draw their own lessons regarding the US capacity to be the overriding power in the region. The control of the air space over the disputed islands—even though they are bits and pieces of uninhabitable rock—has become a test of national power and security commitments for the US, as well as its perceived ability and willingness to stand by its friends. If it accepts the Chinese restrictions, the US may as well resign to being an ineffectual player in the region! On the other hand, aggressive and constant patrolling of the area in dispute is also not an option since it carries the inherent risk of unintended accidents that could lead to disastrous escalation.
Even though the US will have to adopt a ‘softly, softly’ approach, while clearly demonstrating its steel, the US is the beneficiary in an obtuse manner of the Chinese actions. The US pivot to Asia has been slow after its announcement three years back. The perception of an aggressive Chinese foreign policy could be a vitalising factor in this pivot by bringing reluctant regional partners more willingly into the fold. If played correctly, this could be manna from heaven for a flagging US diplomatic effort in the region.
There is another side to this on-going saga, which must not be lost sight of. The US cannot continue to fly its military aircraft over the ADIZ and claim that all these missions have been long in the planning pipeline. Over a period of time such flights may even seem unnecessarily provocative and the Chinese would have achieved their long term objective. The ADIZ would get de facto recognition, and in any case all ADIZs are only unilateral declarations by individual nations. The Chinese are already portraying their non-reaction to the US and Japanese incursions in the past few days as proof of their exercising restraint in the face of direct incitement. Even tacit agreement, in the long term, by even a small number of nations regarding Chinese sovereignty over the demarcated airspace will be a diplomatic win for China. This situation coming to pass is a distinct possibility considering the need for international airlines to tap into the burgeoning tourist trade emanating from China.
In the past few years Chinese foreign policy has been driven by ‘populist nationalism’ and has been constantly assertive with the official narration of the ‘century of humiliation’. There is a prevalent sense of victimhood in the nation’s stance on all its dealings with other nations—both bilateral and multi-lateral. It is likely that this approach could lead to the adoption of an intransigent position in asserting its claims over disputed areas, whether at sea, land or in the air. In these circumstances military action cannot be ruled out, although one hopes that the leadership would refrain from such extreme actions. The declaration of the ADIZ must be understood for what it is; China’s departure from its long standing foreign policy of minding its own business to a focus on issues outside its borders as President Xi Jinping commences his ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.
The current situation is perhaps one of the most confronting in the long saga of US-China relationship that has revelled at brinkmanship. The actions by both parties have been reminiscent of a game of chicken, with both sides waiting for the other to blink. With the flights of the US bombers and other nation’s military aircraft going unchallenged, it looks as if China has blinked first—but this does not rule out muscular retaliation, especially if the ‘provocation’ is heightened further through intemperate action. Beijing could very rapidly come under intense domestic pressure to prove that it is serious about enforcing the ADIZ. This would be disastrous for continued regional, and subsequently global, security.  
As long as nothing goes drastically wrong in Chinese domestic situation and as long as a war is not initiated either with Japan, the US or some other country, the declaration of the ADIZ could in certain ways be considered a master stroke by the Chinese at the tactical level. However, at least for the moment it seems that the strategic level repercussions had not been fully thought through—a mistake that the Chinese policy makers do not often make. Dreaming up clever ways to antagonise neighbours normally evolves into strategic nightmares. China currently stands at this juncture.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario would be the Chinese Government painting itself into a corner wherein it is left with no choice but to use brute force to enforce what is only a line in the sky!
© [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. avm (retd) ak tiwary Reply December 2, 2013 at 03:52

    very good analysis.
    let me put two thoughts for considerations:
    1. Xi JInping is doing this incl arunachal pradesh controversy intensification to show PLA he means business, thereby consolidate his hold on PLA.
    2. A mature chinese would not stoke two fires at the same time, when one is against USA.. So this is just feeling waters tosuit future policies. regards tv

    • TV,

      I agree with both your comments. However, I am not that certain that the Chinese would look at doing something similar in Arunachal or Ladakh. They may also be testing the capability of the ‘rest’ of the world to react as well as their own position in case of a double jeoprady. Testing the waters by dipping their toes a bit seems to be the case. The next time they would be better prepared.

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