China's ADIZ as Area Denial

The new air defense zone is only one part of a broader strategy.

The Chinese announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extending deep into the East China Sea has aroused enormous concern in Japan and South Korea, as well as the United States. The ADIZ’s boundaries, generally aligning with the Chinese claimed maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea, as well as clearly covering the disputed Senkaku islands, are seen as an attempt to reinforce China’s claims.

The Chinese demand that foreign aircraft transiting the ADIZ file flight-plans with the Chinese Ministry of Defense is little different than the Chinese demand that foreign ships transiting China’s EEZ announce their presence in advance. If China’s claims to such an ADIZ were accepted, then it would have further reinforced China’s assertions of a substantially expanded set of rights within its declared EEZ. Not only would it further underscore the Chinese claim to the Senkakus and the surrounding waters, but it would also support the Chinese claim that EEZs should be treated more like territorial waters, in terms of rights of innocent passage and freedom of navigation.

That the announced ADIZ overlaps both Japanese and South Korean ADIZs raises the real potential for confrontation and miscalculation. From Beijing’s perspective, if states wish to avoid those calamities, then they should comply with China’s demands. In effect, the choice is a stark one: Concede to China or take increased risk.

But the creation of the ADIZ is not simply a matter of territorial aggrandizement, or an attempt to lay claim to the extensive swaths of maritime territory it encompasses. It is also, in effect, an exercise in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), what the Chinese term “counter-intervention,” in miniature. It serves to keep Western airpower at bay through the employment of a variety of tools. While not necessarily entailing the use of force, the announcement implies the possibility of doing so, and tests the resolve of not only China’s neighbors, but of America’s commitment to its allies.

Strategic Political Warfare

The announcement of the ADIZ is first and foremost an exercise in political warfare—an attempt to shape others’ perceptions and risk calculations. The announcement of the ADIZ is consistent with international norms, although it is worth noting that there are no formal international procedures for the creation of such zones. Nonetheless, Chinese public pronouncements provide fair warning to other states of the establishment of the zone.

Equally importantly, the delineations are clearly intended to show that China’s actions are just as legitimate (or illegitimate) as those of other states. Thus, in a subsequent press conference, the PRC Ministry of National Defense spokesman specifically noted that the 130 kilometer distance from other states’ territories is comparable to other states’ ADIZ’s proximity to the PRC. In this regard, it is an attempt to portray China’s actions as fundamentally reasonable, both to domestic and foreign audiences. The announcement of the ADIZ on the heels of the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress raises the question of whether this measure was specifically approved by the top leadership of the Party, and what other actions might be forthcoming in the next year.

The announcement also provides some potential insight into Chinese information operation efforts in support of their A2/AD strategy. It is, in some ways, an exercise in brinksmanship—are other states willing to risk the possibility of inadvertent confrontations? At the same time, however, the PRC announcement does not provide specific details about how China would enforce the ADIZ—and therefore how it is likely to respond to challenges such as that posed by the U.S. dispatch of two B-52s. China can choose to delay responding, or even not respond at all, to any given incident, while nonetheless maintaining the stance that its ADIZ remains in-place—and retain the option of responding in the future.

Indeed, it is possible that the strong responses by the United States, Japan and South Korea constitute, in the Chinese calculus, sufficient provocation to justify a more forceful course of Chinese action in the future. In the context of the Chinese strategy of “Active Defense,” China has the right to engage in the operational and tactical preemptive use of force, should it be subject to strategic aggression. Challenges to Chinese territorial and maritime sovereignty almost certainly fulfill those conditions.

An Evolving PLA Air Force

It remains an open question, however, as to why the Chinese chose to announce their ADIZ at this point in time. Almost certainly, the announcement reflects the steady improvements in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and especially the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). The ability to enforce an ADIZ requires sufficient longer-range fighters, as well as a sufficiently robust sensor and command and control network.