China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Significance for Beijing’s broader Foreign Policy

By the CSIS Asia Team: Michael Green, Nicholas Szechenyi, Victor Cha, Bonnie Glaser & Christopher Johnson

Source: mxiong's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

PLA Air Force J-10 on the runway. China’s decision to announce an air defense identification zone can be viewed within the context of the new leadership’s framing of security challenges it faces in the region. Source: mxiong’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

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.

Why did China establish an East China Sea ADIZ?

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.

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

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.

Dr. Michael J. Green is Senior Vice President and holds the Japan Chair at CSIS. Mr. Christopher K. Johnson is a Senior Adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Dr. Victor Cha is a Senior Adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser is a Senior Adviser for Asia with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Mr. Nicholas Szechenyi is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Japan Chair at CSIS.


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