China's ADIZ: A Low-Risk Move

For Beijing, the new air-defense zone doesn't look so dangerous.

On November 23, Beijing announced the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) would go into effect, requiring all aircraft transiting the demarcated zone to register their flight plan with the Chinese authorities. The ADIZ overlapped similar Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese zones and, according to official statements, rested on an explicit claim of Chinese sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Immediately, official statements and pundits characterized the move as “destabilizing” and “totally unacceptable.” Listening to the hullabaloo around the ADIZ and the risks Beijing supposedly was running, one might be forgiven for thinking that China had seized one of the offshore islands or painted a U.S. aircraft carrier with fire-control radar. From Beijing’s perspective, the ADIZ probably was a low-risk move capable of netting both policy successes and important information about U.S. intentions.

First, the ADIZ declaration is entirely unilateral from start to finish. If Beijing says it exists, then it exists and most commercial airlines will file their flight plans appropriately. Because of the potential risks, no responsible business executive is likely to do otherwise without government strong-arming. China changed the facts on the ground, or rather in the air. Although the ADIZ could lose some its credibility through uneven enforcement; from here on, Beijing can point to this behavior change and use it to support its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea. It already has done so, despite ADIZs having no international legal consequences for determining sovereignty.

Second, diplomacy and passivity will not lead to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands “returning” to China. Tokyo refuses to acknowledge Beijing’s position that the islands are disputed territory and, therefore, should be up for negotiation, if not outright return. Beijing needs to act on a recurring basis to demonstrate Japan’s position does not accord with the reality of the dispute and that it can operate as though the islands were Chinese territory. If possession is nine-tenths of the law and Beijing’s goal is undisputed sovereignty over these islands, then any action toward this goal short of war will be relatively low risk.

Third, Beijing probably calculated on a rush to return to normality. No one wants to go to war over a set of rocks—a point constantly reiterated. Although Washington condemned the act, the administration joined many other governments in encouraging, at least tacitly, commercial airlines to cooperate with the Chinese authorities. With so many issues on the U.S.-China relations agenda as well as China’s importance as a trading partner to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, why should Beijing expect the ADIZ to derail ostensibly more material, long-term concerns? After all, Vice President Joe Biden’s visit was intended to cover a wide range of issues—not to hold U.S.-China relations hostage to the ADIZ—because “we have a stake in each other’s success” and cooperation is necessary for U.S. objectives on North Korea, climate change, and trade.

Fourth, the bad feelings that China’s ADIZ engenders belong predominantly to countries that Beijing increasingly suspects of malign intentions, namely Japan and the United States. Since the Japanese government’s purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Chinese official press has repeatedly castigated Tokyo for the revival of militarism and changing the status quoa situation that only has gotten worse since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office. Chinese assessments have gotten systematically more pessimistic about U.S. intentions and the likelihood that the U.S. rebalancing to Asia is but cover for containment.

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