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


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.

February 8, 2014 at 03:45

On the hindsight, China made a fundamental error in that it should have declared an all-coast ADIZ running from its North Korean to Vietnam. This would have minimized the criticism or at least received the same level of criticism for a much large ADIZ. An all-coast ADIZ would have masked its real intention of getting control of Senkaku airspace. Well, what do you expect from short-sighted emotional decisions?

Little Helmsman
December 23, 2013 at 06:16

China’s military is highly dependent on Euro technology! :))


But perhaps the most strategic item obtained by China on its European shopping spree is below the waterline: the German-engineered diesels inside its submarines.

Emulating the rising powers of last century – Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union – China is building a powerful submarine fleet, including domestically built Song and Yuan-class boats. The beating hearts of these subs are state-of-the-art diesel engines designed by MTU Friedrichshafen GmbH of Friedrichshafen, Germany. Alongside 12 advanced Kilo-class submarines imported from Russia, these 21 German-powered boats are the workhorses of China’s modern conventional submarine force.

December 22, 2013 at 03:15

A central issue is this. Should a country as powerful as today’s China have a “backyard”? China does not used to have one. Others feel comfortable with that “status quo” of a boxed China. Now China feels strongly about having a long denied PARITY (it’s way too early to even talk about an expansion yet). Something has to give here.

for real!!
December 22, 2013 at 02:44

yeah, it clarified the fact that china had better pull it’s head in lest it loses it.Two faced china has lost all hope of continuing to state a case for a peaceful rise,which,by the way no one actually believed.I would be willing to bet that the introduction of a scs zone will be the straw that breaks the camels back.It will unleash a hellstorm I know china would not expect and can not contain. I think china tries to make out that Japan is the instigator in alot of the troubles whom needs to be taught a lesson by china,but mark my words ,even without the help of the us china would be hard pressed to do so.i had worked in china for ten years and found that disipline is a truely hard attribute to find in most employees we have ever had.Japan on the other hand is steeped in disipline, and this is where wars are won and lost.

talking points
December 21, 2013 at 18:39

No, all ADIZs require ids regardless if the plane is bound to that country. Japanese jets frequently harass airliners from Taiwan to China.

December 21, 2013 at 03:29

The United States doesn’t necessarily need to get tougher with China, it needs to get more consistent. Right now China is pushing boundaries and testing limits precisely because US policy towards China has been so ambiguous and chaotic. One minute they’re a “strategic competitor”, the other they’re an adversary, and the next they’re a “valued member of the international community.”

Part of our problem is that our foreign policy is largely formulated in committee. Congress has a say, the State Department has a say, the White House has a say, the Pentagon has a say… there’s a lot of cooks in that kitchen. So while Congress may want a confrontation, for example, the Pentagon may be seeking closer ties. Our policy towards China are in and of themselves a sloppy compromise.

What the US needs to do is allow one entity to formulate and lead foreign policy with China. The situation with China is too important and too fluid to leave the decision making up to a debate. Whether the State Department takes the lead or the Pentagon or whomever, we need more consistency and decisiveness when dealing with China.

December 23, 2013 at 01:54

good point. too many bosses.

December 21, 2013 at 01:30

I’m struck by the gulf in perceptions between Americans and Chinese regarding these territorial disputes. Americans perceive this dispute as being about a few isolated islands in the middle of nowhere. Chinese perceive this dispute is about reclaiming a large amount of territory, including whole seas the size of Germany, in order to reclaim their past size from a thousand years ago. If Americans viewed this as Chinese do I think we would be seeing a much different reaction. The similarities btw. Germany and China before WWII when you look at this from a Chinese perspective is jarring. Germany’s seizures of European countries was meant to reclaim territory last held by the Holy Roman Empire. I’m afraid too many Americans remain on vacation from history. Appeasing the first relatively small annexations will not satisfy China’s enormous ambition here. They aren’t trying to just take back a few islands at all if we listen to what Chinese are saying.

December 21, 2013 at 01:03

I must admit that China’s air defense zone and the U.S. respone to it by flying B 52s into the zone clarified a lot of things in the minds of the world public. In fact this year 2013 clarified a lot of political questions regarding world balance of power.

Before the air defense zone event, I still had doubts about China-U.S. relations and the direction it will be going. Now, I have no more doubts. Conflict is inevitable.

December 22, 2013 at 03:03

You really want a conflict b/w the US & China occurring? Just in a short time, not only all China’s nuclear deterrents would be destroyed, but its PLAAF & PLAN would also be wiped out. Think twice before you wish, Bankotsu.

December 23, 2013 at 01:21

China must be prepared and be realistic on war. U.S. is hell bent on containing China’s rise.

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