East China Sea ADIZ: A Turning Point in US-China Relations?

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Nearly three weeks ago, Beijing’s announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) set in motion vociferous reactions in the region and beyond, and debates over the policy and its implications continue apace. The specific reasons that the ADIZ was seen as provocative have been well-rehearsed: The declaration of an air defense zone is not itself destabilizing, but this one was particularly problematic because Beijing included multiple disputed territories, insisted that it applied to all aircraft (not just those bound for China), and failed to confer with other states in the region before the announcement.

With the declaration several weeks behind us, analysts have now turned to what the ADIZ means for the future. Some have suggested that the ADIZ is a sign that the United States needs to get tougher on China. Others have argued that with the announcement, Beijing overplayed its hand and Washington should allow it to walk back the policy. One such analyst has recommended an end to the public ADIZ debate while the U.S. and China attempt to establish rules of the road in private. Implicit, but rarely acknowledged, in this latest round of analysis is that the November 23 announcement marked an inflection point of sorts in the U.S.-China relationship, and that Washington may (or may not) need to re-tool its approach for dealing with China’s rise. Wherever one comes down on this debate, the inquest should not remain tacit. The ADIZ announcement laid bare the difficulties of managing great power relations during times of power transition. Circumspect analysis of why the November 23 declaration seemed so provocative is necessary if the United States and China are to manage their relationship peacefully.

One could offer up numerous arguments for why the ADIZ might represent an inflection point. As one China scholar discussed recently, the air defense zone may signal that Beijing believes that the PLA is ready to press claims in the East China Sea, or that it is actually willing to escalate a conflict. From the United States’ perspective, I will suggest that the announcement was jarring for reasons that are essentially grand strategic. The East China Sea ADIZ is at once consistent with Beijing’s existing strategy of opportunistically asserting control in contested areas, while also surprising in its form and timing. Because the challenge was both unexpected and not anomalous, it underscored the fact that China’s ascent, with all of its ramifications, is not a long-term event to be anticipated, but of immediate and pressing policy import.

To begin, several experts have noted that the ECS ADIZ is consistent with Beijing’s long-term strategy of asserting control in the region. China has been expanding its maritime patrols around the Senkaku/Diaoyu for years, and increased its aerial presence in the months leading up to the announcement. In the South China Sea, Beijing took control of the contested Scarborough Reef in 2012, following a standoff with the Philippines. In the months since, Chinese analysts have apparently started referring to a “Scarborough Model” of territorial contestation.  In the context of this penchant for salami tactics, the ADIZ policy may have actually seemed like a fairly low-risk move. Analysts also aver that Beijing is likely to declare another ADIZ in the South China Sea in the relatively near future. And since East China Sea ADIZ’s creation, there has already been an incident between U.S. and Chinese vessels in those waters. Taken together, these facts suggest that the ECS ADIZ hardly signaled a new strategy on Beijing’s part.

Despite this strategic consistency, however, the November 23 announcement was still surprising for several reasons. First, the ECS ADIZ was a rules-based challenge, and therefore fundamentally different in form than the maritime or aerial displays of force which Beijing has been employing to test administrative control thus far. ADIZs are not formal international legal mechanisms, but the policies of sovereign states with which other countries usually comply. In theory, they can help reduce the risk of midair collisions and increase transparency and stability. The ECS ADIZ was destabilizing primarily because it included multiple disputed territories.

Beijing also did not follow this rules-based approach with commensurate reassurance. By failing to consult with regional actors or provide details on how it intended to enforce the ADIZ, Beijing seems to have declared rules for a road that does not belong to it.

In some important respects, a rules-based challenge to the status quo can have much greater staying power than a military one, even though an ADIZ is not a legal mechanism: If China’s neighbors accept or do not contest these rules, Beijing may call that a victory. Moreover, a rules-based approach has particular ramifications for the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff, where Japan does not recognize the existence of a dispute. Asserting an air defense zone may have been an attempt to try to force Tokyo to acknowledge the dispute in a way that increased maritime patrols and overflights could not.  In sum, this challenge took on an unanticipated new form, and one that could have far greater staying power than China’s past tests.

Second, in addition to the form this challenge took, it was also surprising in its timing and tempo. Beijing made the November 23rd announcement as the United States and its P5 +1 partners were preparing to announce the Geneva deal with Iran. Given that it too was part of those talks, Beijing may well have hoped the international excitement around the nuclear deal would distract from its ADIZ gambit and permit a fait accompli.  Analysts have also noted that the announcement came on the heels of Gary Locke’s resignation as ambassador, and just weeks after the government shutdown had forced the cancellation of President Obama’s trip to Asia. If one was sitting in Beijing, this may have seemed an apt time to contest control with hope of minimal outside intervention. But as scholars of political psychology have shown, unanticipated, unwelcome policies are likely to resonate with audiences far more than those that are just plain unsavory.  Surprise can have a multiplier effect on the way a challenge is perceived. Strong statements of opposition by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as well as B-52 overflights of the area appear to reflect this fact.

The ADIZ announcement was also surprising in its tempo. In the Scarborough Shoals incident, China slow-played its incursion on the reef against a militarily inferior Philippines, all the while taking care to keep the United States at bay in the standoff. The challenge unfolded over a period of months, and although it involved a U.S. ally, Washington did not demonstrate interest in becoming involved in the fray. Contrast this to the East China Sea: The United States and Japan maintain very close ties, the United States deploys tens of thousands of troops in Japan, and Washington has made clear that it will oppose challenges to Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyus. The United States’ interest in the East China Sea is therefore manifest, and yet the abrupt ADIZ announcement came anyway. Beijing did not test the waters — say by announcing another ADIZ first, and extending the ECS ADIZ later — but instead declared the policy swiftly and in spite of obvious U.S. interests to the contrary.

Consistency with Beijing’s past contestation strategies, coupled with surprising means, timing, and tempo may help to explain why the ECS ADIZ has generated so much attention and analysis worldwide. It was both jarring in its execution, and impossible to dismiss as an aberration. As such, it seems not only to foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead as the Washington prepares for Beijing’s ascendance, but serves as a reminder that China’s rise is a present-tense policy conundrum.

U.S. officials and other actors in the region are clearly cognizant of the fact that China is already the dominant country in Asia, and that it has specific dates to which it pegs its strategic goals. PLA writings suggest that China hopes to have effective control of the first island chain by 2020, and the country aims to be fully developed by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese revolution. It has long been understood that navigating the expanding goals and interests of a rising power would present difficult tests for Washington and its regional allies. In the punctuated consistency of its challenge, the ECS ADIZ seemed to confirm that these long-dated benchmarks were in fact much closer than they appeared.

How the Chinese will enforce the ADIZ remains an open question, as does the extent to which the United States will push back on it publicly and privately. Beyond hoping that Beijing walks back its policy in practice, and calling for sensible crisis management mechanisms, however, Washington should keep this inflection point in mind.  In the years ahead there are likely to be many more surprises of timing, means, and ends as China’s interests expand. Carefully-calibrated U.S. responses will be as important as the policies themselves in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

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