China's Air Defense Identification Zone: Impact on Regional Security

CSIS Asia Team

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced the creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Saturday, November 23. The MND also announced Aircraft Identification Rules for the ADIZ, which include a warning that “defensive emergency measures” would be adopted to respond to aircraft that refuse to follow the instructions. The zone overlaps the existing ADIZ of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. China’s ADIZ covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islets claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan. One day following the announcement, China conducted two aerial patrols over the area involving Tu-154 and Y-8 aircraft, prompting the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to send two F-15 fighter jets to intercept them. The announcement elicited immediate responses from Japan, the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, and Taiwan.

Q1: How did the United States and regional allies respond?

A1: Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued separate statements expressing U.S. concerns. Kerry called China’s move “an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea” and warned that its “escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident.” Hagel noted that the move “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” He reaffirmed U.S. policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the disputed islands and that the Chinese announcement would have no bearing on U.S. operations. On November 26, a pair of U.S. B-52s from Guam flew through the contested area to assert U.S. prerogatives.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan denounced China’s declaration as a dangerous attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea through coercion, vowed to protect Japan’s air and sea space, and demanded that Beijing “revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace.” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stated that Japan would coordinate closely with the United States, the ROK, and others on demanding a revocation of the ADIZ measures. Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned China’s ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, to the Foreign Ministry and lodged a formal protest against the ADIZ announcement, repeating the prime minister’s demand that China revoke the measures and dismissing their validity given Japan’s position that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of the territory of Japan. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stated that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would work with the U.S. military to coordinate monitoring activities.

The ROK Foreign Ministry summoned Minister Counselor Chen Hai of China on Monday, November 25, to express its reservations over China’s unilateral drawing of the ADIZ, as did the ROK Ministry of National Defense via the Chinese embassy’s defense attaché. Deputy Defense Minister for Policy Yoo Jeh-seung of the ROK also noted that Seoul cannot recognize the ADIZ and stated that the ROK would maintain its jurisdictional right to waters around the disputed Ieodo/Suyan Rock.

Australia today summoned China’s ambassador to voice its concerns, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a statement. So far, no Southeast Asian governments have followed suit. Regional airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and two Japanese airlines have said they will give China advance notice of flight plans through the zone.

Q2: Why has China’s ADIZ prompted such negative responses?

A2: Beijing’s action further increases tension in the territorial dispute between China and Japan at a time when that bilateral relationship is already severely strained and heightens the risk of an accident. There is a very large overlap between China’s ADIZ and Japan’s ADIZ. When aircraft from either country fly in this overlapping area, the other side is likely to scramble fighters and intercept the intruder. If intercepts are not conducted safely and in accordance with international norms, a collision is possible. Recall that in 2001 a Chinese fighter jet that was conducting aggressive intercepts collided with a U.S. surveillance plane, which resulted in the Chinese pilot’s death, the forced landing of the U.S. EP-3 on Hainan Island where its 24-member crew was held for 11 days, and a crisis in U.S.-China relations.

Moreover, China’s Aircraft Identification Rules make no distinction between aircraft flying parallel with China’s coastline through the ADIZ and those flying toward China’s territorial airspace. Secretary of State Kerry highlighted this issue in his statement, saying that the United States “does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace,” implying that the United States would not recognize China’s claimed right to take action against aircraft that are not intending to enter its national airspace. Secretary Hagel stated that the United States would not change the way it conducts military operations in the region. Some Chinese may believe that a kinetic action against a Japanese aircraft in disputed air space near the Senkakus would not provoke a U.S. response because Washington is neutral on the issue of sovereignty over the islands. Secretary Hagel’s reiteration of U.S. commitments to Japan under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is important in this regard and should help to prevent Chinese miscalculation.
The problem for the ROK is that China’s ADIZ overlaps with Korea’s ADIZ off the southern island of Jeju, airspace already patrolled by the ROK Air Force. Included within the Chinese zone is a ROK-controlled submerged rock known as Ieodo in Korean, ownership of which has historically been disputed between the ROK and China. The ROK built the Ieodo Ocean Research Center, an unmanned scientific station, on the rock in 2003, despite great objections from the Chinese. The ROK Navy includes Ieodo within its area of operations, increasing the potential for maritime conflict between the ROK and China.

Q3: Why did China establish an East China Sea ADIZ?

A3: China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman claimed that its action is “a necessary measure taken by China in exercising its self-defense right” and that “it is not directed against any specific country or target.” Nevertheless, the decision to declare an East China Sea ADIZ is likely aimed at strengthening Beijing’s claim over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. This move follows China’s September 2012 submission to the United Nations of baselines to demarcate a territorial sea around the disputed islands.

China may also be responding to recent Japanese warnings that it reserves the right to shoot down unmanned drones that pose a threat to Japanese airspace. By creating an ADIZ that includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Beijing may believe it has established a basis for challenging and, if necessary, taking action against Japanese aircraft operating in this zone.

Beijing may also seek to collect and publish data on the number of times that Chinese jets scramble to intercept Japanese fighters that enter into its ADIZ. Japan already publishes data on “intrusions” by Chinese and Russian aircraft; China may seek benefits in demonstrating to its domestic audience that the party and military are doing their utmost to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Q4: How does this move fit within the context of China’s emerging foreign policy and military strategy under President Xi Jinping?

A4: At first glance, the establishment of the ADIZ seems to be at odds with the Xi administration’s incipient foreign policy vision. Since coming to power, the new leadership has seemed to focus its energies on rebooting Beijing’s relations with its regional neighbors. China has sought to calm tensions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over territorial disputes in the South China Sea by adopting, at least rhetorically, a more constructive approach toward managing the problem through dialogue aimed at an eventual agreement on a Code of Conduct. Xi and his premier, Li Keqiang, stepped up the charm offensive with their respective performances at last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings, signing deals worth billions in an economic blitzkreig reminiscent of Beijing’s highly effective “smile diplomacy” that began in the late 1990s. Xi and his colleagues seemed to cap off this new approach by holding a rare internal policy conclave in late October focusing on strategies for further improving China’s relations with peripheral states.

Of course, one can make the argument that relations with Japan are a special case and that Beijing’s actions are consistent with a longstanding tradition of seeking to avoid tensions on multiple fronts at any one time. Viewed through that prism, the friendlier approach toward Southeast Asia can be characterized as a necessary precursor to an even tougher policy approach toward Japan. But it would be a mistake to confine the import of the ADIZ solely to Beijing’s cat-and-mouse game with Tokyo. Instead, it should be understood within the context of the new leadership’s framing of the security challenges it faces in the region.

Distracted by its once-in-a-decade leadership transition and a struggling economy, the senior Chinese leadership last year largely deferred an authoritative review of the implications of the U.S. strategic rebalancing toward Asia for China’s security. With the succession now complete, however, the outlines of Xi Jinping’s assessment of the situation are coming into sharper focus. Recent authoritative Chinese documents, such as this year’s Defense White Paper, have affirmed the continuing validity of China’s primary external strategic guidelineits judgment that China has a “period of strategic opportunity” extending through 2020 in which a benign external security environment allows it to focus on its internal development. That said, these writings also suggest that the “period of strategic opportunity” is under “unprecedented stress” and that the U.S. rebalance is the source of that stress.

Against that backdrop, Xi’s frequent admonitions to the PLA to be prepared to “fight and win wars” take on added significance. Along with hints from the just-concluded Third Plenum that the leadership is considering sweeping military structural reforms aimed at improving the PLA’s combat effectiveness, it leaves an impression that the leadership is signaling that it judges the risk of conflict in the region to be on the rise. The establishment of the ADIZ can therefore be seen as contributing to the seeming sense of urgency that Xi is seeking to foster in shaping the regime’s response to this threat assessment. It also suggests that, while still the predominant concern, the possibility of an accident in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu territory is not the only risk of escalation in the East China Sea that U.S. security planners should be focusing on.

Q5: What are the implications of China’s actions for the United States and other regional players?

A5: From the U.S. perspective, the ADIZ announcement is likely to be seen as part of a deliberate strategy to bolster Beijing’s sovereignty claims, adding to Chinese air and maritime probing in the East China Sea and now the surrounding air space. The United States will seek to encourage the peaceful rise of China while demonstrating consistency in U.S. declaratory policy on the islands. Close coordination and defense cooperation with Japan, the ROK, and other regional partners and a clear strategy for sustaining U.S. forward presence are all essential elements in dissuading Beijing from further pursuing an escalatory strategy that could undermine regional security.

Leaders in the United States and Japan are likely to view these escalatory measures as a test of Japan’s resolve and of the vitality of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Chinese aggression, however, is likely to bolster domestic and regional support for Prime Minister Abe’s national security agenda and reinforce efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and increase bilateral jointness and interoperability. Support for Japanese views may grow in Southeast Asia as states bordering the South China Sea worry about a similar Chinese move to place a South China Sea ADIZ over their disputed islands.

The negative reactions in the ROK come as a surprise to many given the growing positive relations between China and the ROK since President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration in February of this year. Just last week State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China paid a well-received three-day visit to Seoul, where he met with President Park and a host of high-ranking ROK officials, including National Security Office head Kim Jang-soo and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, to discuss progress made in the ROK-China Strategic Cooperation Partnership announced by Park and Xi in June. Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo of the ROK is scheduled to meet with Wang Guangzhong, the deputy of the PLA in Seoul on November 28. That previously scheduled meeting will be an early indication of how much damage Beijing has done in its relations with Seoul.

Vice President Joe Biden will be visiting Japan, Korea, and China next week, and the ADIZ issue will be at the top of his agenda. It will be important for the United States to coordinate responses with allies and partners in the region to ensure that Beijing recognizes unilateral escalation is counter to Chinese interests.

Michael J. Green is a Senior Vice President and holds the Japan Chair at CSIS. Christopher K. Johnson is a Senior Adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Victor Cha is a Senior Vice Adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Bonnie S. Glaser is a Senior Adviser for Asia with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. 

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Bonnie S. Glaser