Canberra, 19 December 2013

The so-called US pivot to Asia has brought the Asia-Pacific region into global focus and highlighted the fact that along with its economic dynamism, there are also political upheavals and turmoil in the region. Significantly the common cause of this turbulence is the activities of the People’s Republic of China, by far the fastest growing economy. There has been an underlying feeling in the region, and may be even around the world, that an economically strong China will gradually assert its influence through increasing the employment of its muscle power, thereby generating political uncertainty. While China has in the past decade or so tried to browbeat smaller nations of the region bilaterally, the sudden declaration on 23rdNovember of the unilateral establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea was unexpected and many countries reacted strongly to it. This action has further muddied the political and security situation in the region and added to the prevailing instability.

There are a number of factors that must be taken into account to try and understand the reason for this provocative action by China and also to visualise how this will play out in the long term. Almost as a caveat for any analysis of Chinese actions, it must be remembered that China has a very long memory and the demonstrated patience to follow through on actions initiated in the distant past as well as to initiate actions in the far away future as follow up to actions being undertaken now. To analyse the current issue: fundamentally, ADIZs by themselves are not controversial. They are essentially early warning perimeters for self-defence, established by a state in order to give it sufficient time to identify potential threats. Till now, only aircraft planning to enter the territorial airspace of a nation were asked to submit flight plans, mere transit through the ADIZ was a free enterprise. This is a reasonable position. However, China has decreed that flight plans be filed for any flight through the newly designated ADIZ, irrespective of whether or not an aircraft intents to enter Chinese territorial airspace. This is the first controversy, since it is tantamount to restricting the right to navigation and use of the international commons. The second factor that has irked the immediate neighbours, particularly Japan and South Korea, is that the prescribed ADIZ intrudes into their own ADIZ and also covers some disputed territories. There is apprehension regarding future actions by China as it is also not inconceivable that it would resort to the same method to improve Chinese claims to the disputed areas in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. The discomfiture of the nations of the region is palpable.

Regional Reactions

South Korea has announced an extension of its existing ADIZ, which was originally designated by the US (through the UN Command in the Korean War) in 1951. The proposed expansion would bring the Ieodo Reef—called Suyan Rock in China and originally named Socotra Rock by the British—a small and partially submerged rock in South Korea’s exclusive economic zone within the Korean ADIZ. The rock has been a point of dispute with the Chinese earlier and currently falls inside the Japanese ADIZ. South Korea operates an oceanic research station and a helipad on the Ieodo Reef. Similarly the expanded Korean ADIZ would also cover the islands of Marado and Hongdo that also falls under the Japanese ADIZ. These conflicting claims of control could create acrimony within the US camp by forcing the Japanese also to redraw their own ADIZ lines. However, under the present circumstances it looks as if Seoul will have no option but to assert its authority over its southern holdings, as a precaution against a similar establishment of an ADIZ by the Chinese in the Yellow Sea.

The other nations of the region, not directly affected by the declaration, have by far been less emphatic in their protests. Most South-East Asian airlines have complied with the new requirements. However, there is unease regarding Chinese plans and claimed right, as asserted by the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, to set up similar zones in the South China Sea. Even so, the nations of the region have not been united in their response to Chinese territorial claims and the reaction to the declaration of an ADIZ would in all likelihood be similar. The Chinese will take advantage of this disunity.

Japan is the one nation that will have to content directly with the Chinese move. The Government has forbidden Japanese airlines to acquiesce to the Chinese reporting requirements. This can only be a short term response and the government will have to make a hard decision whether commercial aircraft should fall in line or maintain the strong stand that has so far been adopted. Continuing defiance carries the inherent risk, may be at a later date, of increased interceptions of Japanese airliners and the amplified danger of miscalculations leading to disastrous consequences. From a political perspective the Japanese would also be worried about the demonstrated ability of the Chinese to whittle away the existing controls in areas of disputed claims. The first step in this approach is the establishment of an ADIZ that covers the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Interception within the overlapping areas of the ADIZ, by both nations, is likely to increase in number and instances, pointing towards the possibility of rapid escalation. Japan has a lot to worry about. Although Japan has been reassured by the US regarding its support within the mutual Treaty obligations, whether or not the US would go to war with China over the issue of the ADIZ is a debatable question. Japan is attempting to forge a unified response from Asian countries to China’s actions and is also in the process of referring the ADIZ to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. However, the results of both these initiatives are likely to be less than effective.

Historically Sino-Japanese relations have been acrimonious, to put it mildly. This has been exacerbated over the past 80 odd years. There is an underlying animosity between the nations that comes to the fore when even a minor episode pushes either of the nations beyond a very thin margin of tolerance. The dispute regarding ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is the latest point of contention. Japan refuses to even acknowledge China’s position that the islands are disputed territory and China has realised that diplomacy and passive actions will not return the islands to its control. Therefore, the Chinese have no played a card that situates the islands within their ADIZ, effectively staking a claim to the islands being Chinese territory. The action is to be viewed as China asserting its prerogative to equality with Japan regarding the ownership of the island. There is a downside to the Chinese actions—its perceived belligerence could be used by nationalist Japanese politicians to push through a revision of the Constitution to permit the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to become a normal military force. In other words, such an amendment would permit the government to employ the military forces overriding the constitutionally enshrined prohibitions that currently limit its role. A militarily rejuvenated Japan will be a strategic challenge to China. If this possibility comes to pass, China will have only itself to blame for creating a situation that is far tenser than it has ever had to contend with in the recent past.

The Sino-US Waltz

By pushing Japan, China is attempting to gauge the reaction of the US and gain an insight into the real meaning of the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific—whether the move is meant to contain China through managing the emerging competition or to give bilateral relations with China, as an emerging global power, a central position in the US’s Asian policy development process. The actions initiated by both Japan and the US will be watched very closely in Beijing. In turn, actions—whether reactive or proactive—by the Chinese will foretell the direction that they have decided to take, at least in the medium-term. On the other hand, the Chinese will also be acutely aware of the diplomatic isolation that it faced, and still faces, in the wake of the 23rd November announcement. This would become worse if it resorts to physically specific actions to impose the ADIZ through military means. The initial declaration of the ADIZ has backfired as far as the reactions of the regional nations are concerned, who have all opposed the move. In this common opposition, even the bitterness of the Japan-South Korea relationship seems to have thawed a little! China will perhaps be more cautious in their follow-up actions that are definite to be instituted. However, as with all other actions by China, one should not hold one’s breath.

Analysed purely from a pragmatic viewpoint, Chinese actions are not really out of the ordinary. China’s economic growth over the past three decades has been unparalleled and this growth is almost completely dependent on its maritime lines of supply for energy and raw material. Economic strength has permitted China to modernise its military forces that has in turn bolstered the government’s confidence in conducting its foreign affairs. This mutually supporting combination has reoriented the military to focus more on the external aspects of security, rather than the traditional areas of internal security and social stability, pushing it to take a lead role in defining the nation’s areas of interest. Like most emerging powers, China is at a stage wherein it feels the domestic compulsions to assert itself internationally in what it believes to be its legitimate and expanding sphere of influence. This automatically involves attempts to shape the regional area through a show of military might. In the instance of the declaration of the ADIZ, it is a moot point that China may not have the military ability or political clout to enforce its expanding territorial claims.

At the moment it looks as if China has overstepped its capabilities, but the declaration of the ADIZ and their refusal to back down or cede any concessions in this regard has its own logic. Sometime ago China placed all disputed islets, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, to which it lays claim, under the administrative authority of the city of Sansha. This move triggered loud protestations in the region, but did not provoke any physical action or formal political rejoinder. Since then China has increased its maritime activity in those areas and other than for rare standoffs with smaller nations like the Philippines, there has been no real challenge to the developing Chinese hegemony. This is so since China has taken an approach of ‘slowly, slowly’ to enforcing its writ without creating any ripples through overt displays of taking control. In a similar manner the declaration of an expanded ADIZ with greater demands on reporting of flights has drawn loud protests. It also made the US undertake few military flights into the zone to demonstrate its ability to do so. However, around 55 airlines from 19 countries, including those of the US, have towed the line and filed joint flight plans with China and any other overlapping ADIZ nation for reasons of safety. This tacitly acknowledges China’s authority, as well as its right to control the airspace in question. This is the first virtual step in shaping perceptions to be followed by small physical steps that would alter the status quo over a period of time. Remember, China has a long national memory and even greater strategic patience to out-wait everybody else!

The declaration of the ADIZ is a direct challenge to the US, albeit a calculated and low-risk one. The US is rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, a move that involves not only the military but also the economic and diplomatic elements of the nation. This move has been in response to the Asian doubts regarding US commitment to the region and has been interpreted by China as an effort to contain its rising power and status. The ADIZ is the Chinese strategic gauntlet to the US, thrown to challenge its resolve to be fully engaged in the region. The fundamental question is who will exercise influence over the region, and the Chinese ADIZ is the first attempt to push the US further away from Asian shores. It is a blatant attempt at challenging and changing the existing status quo—not only the Sino-Japanese or Sino-US relations, but also accepted international norms regarding freedom of overflight. The ball has been quite firmly lodged in the US court. Chinese behaviour is coercive, to say the least, and a firm stand against it now, even under a cloud of threatened confrontation, would be better for the prospects of peace in the long term. Perhaps a public display of solidarity with the Japanese through joint patrols over the Senkakau Islands would be a demonstration of purpose that will not go unnoticed by the Chinese leadership. A coercer is almost like a bully. A coercing nation will only back down in the face of a determined and visible show of military strength, underlined by palpable political will.

There is an emerging pattern here of deliberate, if subdued, confrontation being forced between the existing hegemon—somewhat the worse for wear—intent on protecting its place in the sun and a rising power that is showing signs of impatience to assert its will and claim its ‘rightful’ place in the world.


© [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. Sanu uncle a very good article…look forward to getting your updated views on this subject. Sameer

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