Xi's Air Defense Offense
China made a strategic move – on two counts – in declaring the new East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ECSADIZ). First, it directly challenged a U.S. ally, and second, it intentionally set a different set of rules that run contrary to standard international practice. The U.S. response had been an attempt to find a balanced approach and be perceived as an honest broker, however, it also suffered from a lack of clear direction.
On one hand, the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. would not recognize the Chinese-declared ADIZ and flew two B-52s over the area without notifying China. On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued guidance to American civilian airliners to follow the new Chinese regulations. As Representative J. Randy Forbes, Chairman of the House Arm Services Sea Power and Projection Forces Subcommittee, aptly observed by complying with the new flight regulations, “U.S. airlines will be acknowledging the validity of China’s ADIZ.” Furthermore, Vice President Biden commented in Tokyo that there is a need for both China and Japan to create a “crisis management mechanism and effective channels of communication.” This essentially assigns equal responsibility to Japan and China to ease current tensions, even though this latest situation arose from the unilateral action of one party.
If the U.S. still seeks to maintain the northern anchor of its alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region and sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of freedom of the seas (and the airspace above it), the U.S. needs to make several coordinated and coherent strategic moves of its own. Flying B-52s over the Chinese-declared ADIZ was a bold statement, however, this tactical maneuver alone is not sufficient to reverse a potential downward spiral of creeping uncertainty concerning U.S. willingness and ability to uphold regional order as well as international norms.
A firm stand now would be better for peace in the long term than allowing Beijing to continue its coercive behavior. Therefore, as immediate measures, the U.S. should formally notify Chinese leaders that if their new zone remains in place, the U.S. will have no choice but to enhance US-Japan alliance capabilities. The U.S. should then back up this declaratory policy with joint patrols around the Senkakus using U.S. and Japanese air and naval forces. The U.S. should also withdraw its invitation to China to participate in RIMPAC 2014, a biennial military exercise involving over twenty Asian-Pacific nations. Finally, these near-term declarations and actions by the U.S. should be reinforced with longer term declaratory policies and action policies, as described below.
1. Assert definition of freedom of the maritime commons: Normally, military and civilian aircraft not heading toward the country that established the ADIZ in question need not provide self-identification information and flight plans – Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all administer their ADIZs in the East China Sea this way. China’s ECSADIZ announcement stated clearly that it is requiring all aircraft to provide such data when simply traversing its ECSADIZ. Customary practice is the bedrock of international law. Therefore, despite recent assertions made by China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), China is championing a different set of rules for its ADIZ by treating the ADIZ as a territorial sea (which includes the airspace above it). By doing so, China is attempting to redefine acceptable behavior in the maritime commons. Currently, freedom on the high seas covers more than transportation (and innocent passage); it includes the right to conduct surveillance flights, undersea surveys, military exercises and training – all of which China presently contests through its skirmishes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea (SCS), and its protests of U.S. military activities along its coast, despite the locations of such activity are beyond the twelve nautical miles of China’s territorial sea (and airspace).