China's East China Sea ADIZ Gamble: Past, Present, and South China Sea Future?

China's moves in the South and East China Seas have the Asia-Pacific region worried. Is a new ADIZ on the horizon?

“Aggressive,” “coercive,” “antagonistic,” and “hostile” are some of the words various Asia-security experts have used over the last several years to describe recent Chinese foreign-policy choices. Such talk heated up dramatically in November 2013 when China declared—with no official advanced warning—an Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, a geographic flashpoint between various powers in the region. This unilateral action sparked intense global debate as to the logic of such a move, but also amplified larger concerns over Chinese intentions throughout the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific regions.

This essay, divided into several sections, offers a rationale for China’s ADIZ declaration, with an eye towards an even more important question: Will Beijing declare such a zone in the area of the South China Sea? This author believes China’s recent island-reclamation projects are an effort to create the core infrastructure for the declaration and enforcement of such a zone within the next several years. Unless serious action is undertaken to change Beijing’s calculus for creating such zones—utilizing confidence-building measures to change the core of its geostrategic thinking, along with strategies that will challenge such island reclamations—a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea is a near certainty.

There are various prospective motivations behind Beijing’s 2013 ADIZ declaration that are worthy of consideration—the rise of a great power acting in its own self-interest, a deeply rooted sense of historical wrongdoing at the hands of stronger nations in the past, combined with an attempt to shield itself from future actions, as well as nationalistic motives. While all of these explanations lie well within the realm of possibilities, this analysis will explore an equally if not more plausible rationale: China’s 2013 declaration and possible moves towards an ADIZ in the South China Sea should be seen as part of a series of actions that are rooted in an effort to push U.S. and allied forces away from Chinese “near seas” and areas of “core interest,” while at the same time attempting to negate operational concepts like the much-debated but often-misunderstood Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept and associated weapons platforms that could challenge China’s growing antiaccess/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD).

This analysis will then conclude with recommendations on how a joint U.S.-Japan-Vietnam trilateral approach could impact Beijing’s decision making on a South China Sea ADIZ, utilizing a two-tier approach of incentives and deterring strategies to negate the foundations of any future ADIZ.

China’s ADIZ and Air-Sea Battle: A Reaction to a Reaction?[1]

On November 23, 2013, China declared an ADIZ, rattling nerves across Asia and around the world. While many nations, including the United States, have declared ADIZs in the past, Beijing’s announcement warrants special consideration. The new zone covers a large expanse of the East China Sea—a critical waterway and airspace traversed by many of the Asia-Pacific’s most powerful nations, but also many countries from around the globe. Competing territorial claims in this area by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan complicate this matter even further.

Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ: Why Take Such a Step?

Why would Beijing declare such an ADIZ, knowing that it would inflame regional tensions? One possible explanation for the move was that it was a response to Japan’s “nationalization” of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. While this is certainly a strong possibility, there are deeper motives likely at play beyond Beijing and Tokyo’s long-standing dispute. China’s actions were clearly part of a long-term effort to monitor and restrict foreign military activity in what it describes as its “near seas.” As Peter Mattis explained in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, the rollout of the new zone displayed no signs of crisis language, but instead appeared to be the result of a careful policy process—to neutralize the United States’ and possibly others’ efforts to ensure access to the East China Sea; these efforts are themselves a reaction to previous Chinese actions in the recent past.[2]

Beijing’s 2013 ADIZ belongs not only to the context of China’s territorial disputes, but also to an escalating disagreement with the United States over operations in the near seas. It provides a legal framework for China’s complaints about U.S. intelligence-gathering flights near China’s borders, and for radar tracking and harassment of aircraft that fail to report flight plans to Chinese authorities.

Enter the ASB Operational Concept: Pushing China towards an ADIZ?

Considering Chinese concerns as noted above, Beijing feels its ADIZ effort is necessary for resisting growing threats from the U.S. military against the integrity of Chinese borders. Chinese fears over the U.S. ASB operational concept only reinforce these concerns; Chinese analysis highlights ASB as proof of the threat of possible U.S. military intervention in China’s interests.

ASB, now renamed by the Pentagon the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), is itself a reaction to Chinese efforts to develop A2/AD capabilities, suggesting that Chinese and U.S. military planners are already engaged in a conceptual arms race to produce frameworks for controlling access to the near seas. Here we can see a clear reaction cycle and/or security dilemma that is highly disturbing: China, out of a need to protect its core interests and near seas, develops a potent A2/AD capability. The United States then develops ASB to counter this capability. Beijing, seeing the development of ASB, then begins deploying an ADIZ in the East China Sea in another attempt to push U.S. forces back and regulate its near seas and airspace.