Friday, Oct 24, 2014, 1:01 AM CST – China

International

China’s ADIZ

UP IN THE AIR

What signals are China and the US sending to each other in the ADIZ confrontation?

Joe Biden with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a joint press conference following their meeting in Tokyo, December 3, 2013 Photo by CFP

On December 7, 2013, US Vice President Joe Biden visits Observation Post Ouellette during a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War Photo by CFP

You cannot please everyone all of the time, especially when your own interests are tied up in the relationships between them. This, however, is the job with which US Vice President Joe Biden has recently been charged. On his East Asia tour in early December, Biden tried to reassure US regional allies uneasy over China’s most recent power play, without frustrating China too much.

On November 23, China announced its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Aircraft flying in the zone are required to file their flight plans with Chinese authorities, and provide other means of identification such as maintain radio communication and display insignia. Since the 1950s, more than 20 countries have established such zones. As China’s zone covers the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, its announcement triggered an immediate reaction from the US and her major Pacific allies Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The US is uncomfortable with the timing and manner of China’s move. In their statements and remarks, the White House and  Biden have repeatedly expressed concern over the increased risk of “a dangerous miscalculation or accident” due to China’s “sudden announcement,” the US’ firm commitment to protecting her allies, and refusals to recognize the zone. On November 25, two unarmed US B-52 bombers flew into China’s newly established ADIZ.

However, Biden’s published remarks following his meeting in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping did not even mention the issue. The White House spokesperson Jay Carney confirmed on December 2: “For safety and security of passengers, US carriers operating internationally operate consistent with notices to airmen issued by foreign countries.”

Given the tension in this geopolitically sensitive area, it is reasonable to presume that strong responses from the US and her regional allies and a higher risk of accidents were anticipated by Chinese policy makers. There is no point in lecturing China on the results of its decision – it probably makes more sense to analyze the possible indications and implications of China’s actions, and the responses from others, particularly the US.

In the Zone

An ADIZ is an early-warning area outside a coastal country’s airspace designed to give the country enough time to prepare for possible airborne attack against her sovereign territories – it is neither sovereign airspace nor  no-fly zone. There is no international law or agreement on establishing and administrating such zones. Common practice is to check, track, give warnings, intercept or even force an escorted landing if an aircraft is identified as a threat. Shooting it down is not supposed to become an option unless the aircraft enters sovereign airspace, since this could be difficult to justify afterwards. “[It is like] defending yourself from a burglary before a burglar enters your house, but after they have entered your yard,” according to Li Jie, a well-known Chinese military commentator, in an interview with NewsChina.

In a statement on December 3, Geng Yansheng, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense clarified that: “Measures taken are based on factors such as an entering aircraft’s attributes – military or civilian, the extent of threat, or distance.” It recognized that international civil flights “pose no threat in most circumstances,” and revealed that most civil aviation companies traveling the area have filed flight plans to China, “including some Japanese airlines.”

In his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Philippine President Benigno Aquino expressed concern over – but not opposition to – the possibility of China setting up an ADIZ in the South China Sea, where his country and China are engaged in a territorial dispute. The joint statement at a Japan-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit on December 14 vowed more cooperation between the two “in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety” without mentioning China’s ADIZ. Japan’s Kyodo News Agency said that the ASEAN countries’ close ties with China were the reason behind what Japan saw as their unexpectedly moderate rhetoric on the subject.

Immediately following China’s announcement of the ADIZ, the Australian government openly accused China of “coercive or unilateral action to change the status quo in the East China Sea.” However, after her meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the media that the ADIZ was just a minor part of the talks.

Observers have perceived an inconsistency in terms of the different responses in different aspects delivered at different times. This is natural in international politics. Generally, other countries in the region have accepted the ADIZs, at least in terms of civil aviation. This can be partly explained by their close economic relations with China, and in South Korea’s case, this acceptance is cemented by shared frustration at the Abe administration’s alleged military buildup and official view of history. It may be more helpful to understand the broader environment in which the two major players, China and the US, act and react.

Strength and Subtlety

The US’ most drastic defiance of China’s ADIZ so far was the B-52 bombers that flew into China’s ADIZ and lingered about 200 kilometers east of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands three days after China announced the ADIZ. An almost equally drastic, although contradictory move came a few days later, when the White House advised US airliners to comply with China’s ADIZ rules, while insisting that the US refusal to recognize China’s ADIZ remained unchanged.

China’s Ministry of Defense said the Chinese army had monitored the US bombers in real time by identifying their type and trajectory, but it seemed that China took no countermeasures and made no contact.

This exercise of showing both muscle and flexibility on the US side, and restraint on both sides, has caused confusion around the US’ attitude, and doubts over China’s capability to enforce its first ever ADIZ.

Actually, the unarmed bombers were flying along a north-south, not east-west, axis, showing no intention of moving towards China, indicating that the move was not a direct threat. Moreover, said Li, the military commentator, China did not wish to respond too strongly to the US when the zone was established.

Japan reportedly wanted Biden to issue a joint statement with Abe on China’s ADIZ, urging Beijing to rescind the zone and ask American airliners not to file flight plans to Beijing. None of this came to fruition on Biden’s trip. Instead, he repeatedly emphasized the necessity to establish a crisis management mechanism.

The US’ ostensible inconsistency proves that it is caught in a subtle balancing act, Professor Jin Canrong, a prominent China-US relations expert at the Renmin University of China, explained to NewsChina. Internally, the US needs to prevent its commercial interests being affected by political problems, and externally, it has to prove to allies, particularly Japan in this case, that it would never disappoint them, while simultaneously assuring China that it does not want to cause conflict. This mutual restraint, he added, shows that there is basically enough confidence shared between the US and China in their mutual commitment to avoid military conflict. Jin viewed the US response so far as “normal and reasonable.”

No Hiding

It is true, however, that the US is very unhappy with China’s sudden announcement. Instead of questioning the legitimacy of China’s action, as he has on previous occasions, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged at the press conference on December 5 that “countries have ADIZs. The United States has them.” However, he repeated his recent criticism of China’s sudden action as “not wise.”

“The US never sees China as predictable,” said Professor Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, to NewsChina at a forum in Beijing. Though the US may regard China as even more unpredictable after this latest move, this is not thought to be the most important reason for the US’ consistent frustration.

Politically and militarily, Jin said, recognizing China’s ADIZ is the last thing that the US is likely to do. The US insists it has underwritten security in the region with military dominance for the past 60 years since World War II, and as such, it would never accept any military realignment without its own approval or participation. Both professors agree that China’s recent step, taken without any advance consultation, most notably with the US, is a sign that China is ready to become a force shaping, rather than just accepting, the world order within which it operates. This, they stressed, is what has displeased the US about China’s sudden action.

China had already commenced military activities in the area before the ADIZ was established, but officially defining the zone as an area within which rules set by China must be followed by other nations is a different matter. This sends the message that China has begun to attempt to act as a rule maker, noted Professor Jin.

It is commonly recognized that the year 2001, when China gained WTO membership and the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed the US’ attitude towards China in a positive way, marked the beginning of a “golden period of strategic opportunities” for China’s rise. 2010, by contrast, was labeled as the beginning of a “period of strategic challenges,” as tensions over territorial disputes with neighboring countries increased, precipitating and facilitating the US’ “pivot to Asia,” and its strategic realignment in the region.

“There is no such thing as ‘period of strategic opportunities’ if you just wait and do nothing to shape the environment in your favor,” said Professor Yan at the forum. On several occasions he cited Robert Zoellic, former US Deputy Secretary of State and President of the World Bank known for urging China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, who has described China as an “elephant that has grown too big to hide behind a tree any longer.”

History has proved that a rising power will face bigger, not smaller, challenges than before. Given that, Professor Yan views China’s ADIZ decision, leading to a visible rift in the US-Japan alliance, a “typical example” that China has finally begun to try to overcome challenges by making use of them, instead of coping with them passively. He has also repeatedly called for the Chinese government to rethink its non-alliance strategy and act as a security provider for potential regional allies. “If you’re powerful but not my ally, I would be scared of you,” he noted at the forum.

Voices from within China calling for a more proactive role in shaping the world order have been rising in the past few years. The division lies in how big and how fast the adjustment of strategy can be made.

Something More?

There is also speculation that China, by increasing tensions, is trying to bring Japan back to the negotiating table on territorial disputes. Analysts are divided on whether this strategy, if it is indeed part of the plan, could work or not. Professor Yan is not optimistic, “at least not during the Abe administration.”

Few would doubt that the territorial dispute with Japan is an important reason for China’s ADIZ decision. It is no surprise that the strongest response came from Japan – on December 6 the Japanese House of Representatives passed a resolution asking China to rescind the ADIZ. The Japanese government has decided to spend more on military equipment purchases in the next five years to “respond to China’s growing presence in the East China Sea,” as Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported on December 14. Through its National Security Council and the State Secret Bill, the comparatively hawkish Abe administration has been expanding its power in controlling the country’s security policy. There is little sign that Japan is easing its position.

Despite this, Professor Jin believes that the increased pressure from China, “by showing our resolve to fight back if we think you are provoking,” combined with the US’ calls for more communication with China on the ADIZ issue, would be effective in getting Japan back to the negotiation table.

The increased risk of conflict due to miscalculations could also force relevant parties to act more cautiously to avoid accidents, according to Li. Most analysts agree that the principle on which this is based – that nobody, whether American, Chinese or Japanese, thinks the disputed islands are worth a war – is true.

Li also believes that the efforts to implement the ADIZ could help improve China’s military power. “Like in a basketball game, you have to follow your rival closely and block his shots – this may serve as a deterrent, ” he said.

It is difficult to second-guess what policy makers of major players are thinking when they make decisions that affect the whole world. While each one of them wants to win, the eventual winner has to be peace.

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