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.
For much of its history, the PLAAF was largely oriented towards point defense, but was hardly able to maintain watch hundreds of miles from its shores. Several decades of sustained investment, however, have provided the PLAAF with not only fourth generation fighters (J-10, J-11, and Su-27/-30 fighters), but also an extensive array of air defense sensors, including over-the-horizon (OTH) radars and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms. The Chinese military now has a much greater ability to assemble a picture of airspace extending out several hundred miles. At the same time, there has been an effort since the First Gulf War to improve PLAAF training, including by loosening top-down controls and allowing more flexible operations. In this regard, the PLAAF, unlike many other opponents the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War, has improved all the elements of airpower, including not only combat aircraft, but support capabilities, doctrine and training.
Improvements in the training aspect likely also bolster the ability of the PLA to sustain patrols to enforce the ADIZ. For many years, the PLAAF has been practicing reinforcement and force deployments across different military regions (MRs). Such trans-MR exercises mean that, rather than solely relying on the forces in the Nanjing MR (which presumably have responsibility for the East China Sea ADIZ), the PLAAF could sustain patrols by deploying additional elements from China’s six other MRs. In theory, the full range of PLAAF assets could be rotated through in support of the ADIZ, bolstering not only trans-MR interoperability, but also long-range navigation, aerial surveillance, and over-water interception operations. Should PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) assets also be drawn into such operations, this would also improve joint operations between the Chinese air force and navy; i.e., it would foster AirSea Battle with Chinese characteristics.
By maintaining the ability to shift to a higher operational tempo at times and places of its own choosing, Chinese forces impose pressure upon a resource constrained US Air Force, as well as the more limited resources of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the ROK Air Force. Even now, Washington has had to advise civilian airline companies to file flight plans with the Chinese so as to minimize risk to passengers. Military transports, electronic-surveillance aircraft and maritime-patrol aircraft, however, remain potentially at risk, and likely require at least some fighter aircraft from each country standing by to provide escort and support in the event of Chinese interception and harassment.
How to Respond
Ironically, such pressure imposed by Beijing may overcome longstanding historical animosities between Tokyo and Seoul, and help improve military-to-military cooperation in ways that were hitherto difficult to imagine. Improved information sharing among the U.S., South Korean and Japanese air forces might be the ultimate byproducts of Beijing’s foray into aerial diplomacy.
But that is not necessarily foreordained. It is also quite possible that South Korea and Japan will remain unable to bridge their differences, allowing China to pressure each state in turn. Indeed, the inability to create a single common response among the United States, Japan and the ROK in response to the Chinese ADIZ announcement, even governing civilian airliners, bodes ill in this regard.
In either case, the role of the United States remains key—only the US has the depth of resources, including aerial surveillance capabilities, thoroughly exercised command and control networks, and sufficient combat aircraft, to be able to sustain a challenge to the Chinese ADIZ. Beijing is undoubtedly hoping to outmatch the United States in resolve, as well as in resources.
In this regard, it is important to recognize that from the Chinese perspective this is not necessarily an opportunistic attempt at expansion, nor primarily a military action. As with the Chinese interpretation of maritime EEZs, the creation of this ADIZ reflects a reassertion of Chinese claims over what it feels is its rightful territory. If the announcement of the ADIZ is the product of the Third Plenum, then it reflects a decision by the top senior political leadership, suggesting a high degree of resolve.