China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea on November 23 confounded many observers, including veteran China-watchers. The move alarmed China’s neighbors and was met with a rapid U.S. response, which involved flying two unarmed B-52s through the zone as a form of calibrated defiance. My Georgetown colleague, Oriana Mastro, goes through possible explanations for China’s surprise move – most of which are disturbing for long-term U.S.-China relations – and assesses its implications for international security. She calls for a strong U.S. response to China’s declaration, warning that leaving Chinese actions unchecked could further destabilize the region.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. defied China by flying two B-52 bombers through the airspace over the East China Sea. Just two days earlier, China had declared the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area, covering the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and threatened “defensive emergency measures” against those who do not cooperate with the instructions to identify themselves. South Korea and Japan have both announced that their military planes have since flown through the zone unhindered by China.
China’s lack of response to the “violations” adds another dimension to the question: what does China hope to accomplish by establishing this ADIZ? Why take such an apparently provocative step – which will test China’s credibility – and why do it now? China has consistently articulated its opposition to operations within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), holding the view that military vessels and aircraft by their very nature cannot engage in peaceful and innocent passage. However, this is the first time the Chinese government has explicitly applied this position to the airspace over the East China Sea, which has implications for civilian aircraft as well.
The timing of the ADIZ is especially puzzling because after five years of Chinese complaints about U.S. operations within its EEZ – calling them a major obstacle to bilateral relations at every major summit and meeting – Chinese officials now say that this will no longer be a standard talking point. Just when things looked like they were starting to improve, why rock the boat?
Unfortunately, all the logical reasons spell trouble for U.S. interests and regional security. We can rule out miscalculation given that the Chinese government has stuck to its guns. Official media stresses the legitimacy of the move, emphasizing that it is in accordance with international convention (though there are no international agreements governing any aspect of an ADIZ, twenty other countries have established their own ADIZ to enhance early warning. Reports explaining the decision blame Japanese provocations – such as Japan’s September 2011 decision to transfer some of the disputed islands from a private citizen to the government – for the need to enhance “defensive measures.” Chinese media sources are also echoing the message that the ADIZ exemplifies an important step in transparency; foreign aircraft are now clear about the dangers of operating in the ADIZ, thereby reducing the possibility of miscalculation.
The first possible explanation is that Beijing now judges its military is finally in a relatively strong position in the East China Sea and can use that to press its territorial claims. There is no doubt that the airpower balance has been shifting in China’s favor. Beijing’s increasingly accurate and lethal missiles beef up the nation’s capacity to project aerospace power. Theater missiles – that is, conventional ballistic and land attack cruise missiles with medium ranges – enable China’s air force to compensate for its longstanding incapacity to suppress enemy air defenses, maintain air superiority, and go on the attack. China’s air force aspires to conduct more complex aerospace operations and is developing the necessary technologies to do so. Its fifth-generation fighter, the J-20, conducted its maiden flight in January 2011, and U.S. intelligence estimates that this aircraft will be operationally capable by 2018.
However, while Xi Jinping and his comrades may believe China can now achieve local air superiority against Japan, it seems unlikely that they are naïve enough to believe that introducing the risk of escalation would compel Japan to give in to China’s demands. Furthermore, even if the power balance has shifted against Japan, the Chinese air force still has concerns about its ability to maintain air superiority, especially if the U.S. were to get involved.
A second potential rationale highlights the possibility that China may have established the ADIZ to create a wedge in the US-Japan alliance and reduce the likelihood of U.S. involvement in a crisis. Although the move has strengthened Tokyo’s resolve to defend the disputed islands, can the same be said about the U.S.? Officially, yes. Secretary Kerry has announced that the United States will not recognize the ADIZ and has warned its "escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident.”
Although the U.S. government may have the will to stand up to China in the East China Sea, can the same be said of the U.S. public? If China takes no aggressive action directly against the United States, it increases the difficulty for a U.S. president to stand by Japan if that means fighting a limited war against China. Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is filled with netizens interpreting U.S. recent moves and statements as proof that Washington will not fight over the islands – the choice to fly “antiquated” B-52s without weapons is interpreted as recognition of China’s ADIZ and lack of U.S. resolve. As one independent military analyst wrote on a more reputable website, “thank you U.S. for confirming China’s ADIZ.” Under this backdrop, Beijing may hope the U.S. will pressure Japan to back down or, at the very least, that the ADIZ will create tension between the two allies as they debate and disagree on the best way to respond.
A third possibility is the one that shall not be named: China may be preparing to escalate tensions up to the point of limited conflict. Throughout its history, the People’s Republic has not hesitated to move beyond coercive diplomacy to use force to further its policy goals – although it has had varying degrees of success. In these circumstances, Beijing creates a situation in which the other side has to decide whether to back down, or to respond in a way that increases the likelihood of war. China could be setting the stage to make its case to the international community, as well as to the Chinese public, that any use of force in response to Japan is legitimate and defensive.
It’s unlikely that establishing the ADIZ was preparation for war – but it isn’t crazy. Xi Jinping’s calls for a new type of major power relationship with the United States show that China no longer requests the accommodation of its interests, it demands it. Other scholars have pointed out that the sweeping military structural reforms undertaken at the Third Plenum to enhance combat effectiveness coupled with Xi’s exhortations to the PLA that it is time to “prepare for military struggle,” China judges the risk of conflict to be on the rise.
Before creating the Air Defense Identification Zone, China’s leadership would have weighed the possibility that Japan and the U.S. might defy it. China most likely expected exactly the response Washington and Tokyo are giving it. This is the problem. China has the strategic advantage, letting the U.S. fly through the zone, but giving itself the flexibility to respond – and escalate – tensions with Japan on a case-by-case-basis.
This leads us to the most likely explanation for China’s establishment of the ADIZ: China felt it could accomplish its goals of changing the status quo and bolstering its territorial claims without push-back, thanks to U.S. impatience and desire to avoid confrontation at all costs. China expected a harsh response at first from the Obama administration, but believed that, over time, the U.S. would lose momentum and interest. Already, there are indications that the Obama administration is changing course after its initial show of resolve. Vice President Biden’s visit to the region last week ended with the general conclusion that the U.S. is now prepared to live with the ADIZ as long as China backs off from the demand that all aircraft traveling through it check in first. According to Dan Lamothe and Yochi Dreazen, U.S. officials seem to have accepted that China will keep the zone in place, and have shifted their focus to preventing a potential military clash between Japan and China.
This is a mistake. Crisis management is critical to avoid inadvertent escalation, but does little when one side is escalating tensions on purpose to gain advantage and provoke conflict. China has once again introduced risk and increased the potential costs of U.S. routine operations. By shifting the conversation to safety measures, the U.S. government will reward Chinese coercion, increasing the possibility that Beijing will rely on such measures again in the future. China has been shifting the burden of peace onto the U.S. and Japan, and it is time we call China’s bluff. The United States should announce it won’t recognize any ADIZ in or over disputed territory and demonstrate this position by maintaining the same pattern of operations over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, even if it means putting our people and platforms at greater risk.