China's ADIZ: A Low-Risk Move

December 13, 2013 Topic: Global CommonsGlobal Governance Region: China

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.="#.uqcizptiaxu">

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.="#tabmodule">="#tabmodule">

Fifth, whatever the result, Beijing would gain valuable information about U.S. policy in Asia and toward China. In her first Asia-related address on November 20, U.S. national-security adviser Susan Rice said the United States seeks “to operationalize a new model of major power relations,” and she is not the first U.S. official to do so from the White House. Contrary to Dr. Rice’s suggestion, Beijing does not mean “managing inevitable competition,” but rather that Washington places the bilateral relationship at the center of its Asia policymaking. The U.S. response to the ADIZ would let China know whether Washington genuinely accepted this “new model” and act as an honest broker or, as Beijing’s propaganda later claimed, would hold China to a double standard and reinforce Japanese aggressiveness.

Related to this final point, Chinese policymakers may have realized that the more pushback, especially from the United States, the more Beijing could celebrate Western hypocrisy for domestic audiences. Washington speaks of uphold the post-WWII order; however, Beijing claims the Cairo Declaration issued in 1943 after a meeting of Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek, and Franklin Roosevelt returned the islands in the East China Sea to Chinese control. U.S. pushback—seemingly in defiance of the previous commitment—would reinforce Chinese paranoia that there is nothing it can do to be accepted as a “responsible stakeholder.”

When reviewed from this perspective, the East China Sea ADIZ does not appear to be a cavalier or high-risk move. Indeed, all signs point toward
a deliberate, calculated action. Beijing’s calculation of acceptable risk seems to be increasing as its assessments of U.S. intentions become more pessimistic.="#.uqzaavtiaxu">="#.uqzaavtiaxu">

Washington, unfortunately, is feeding darker Chinese predictions by creating false hopes and unmet expectations. The problem with embracing Beijing’s proposed “
New Type of Great Power Relations” or “New Model of Major Power Relations” as a rhetorical framework for U.S.-China relations is that Washington is not prepared to accept China’s conditions. With each rhetorical flourish of the concept, U.S. policymakers create unmet expectations that situations like the ADIZ—regardless of how much sense the U.S. response makes in Washington—draw out in stark relief for Beijing. This is the strategic mistrust the White House claims to want to overcome.="#.uqdtwftiaxu">

China may simply be moving on and leaving its previous hopes for Washington behind. Xi Jinping’s China appears to be less willing to leave regional security to the United States, and, at an October
central government conference on diplomacy, Xi stated China needed to consolidate control over its core interests. Although the full import of this change is not yet clear, it does mean that Beijing’s willingness to run foreign-policy risks has less to do with U.S. opprobrium than before.="#.uqdw8ptiaxu">="#.uqdw8ptiaxu">

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in The Jamestown Foundation’s China Program and a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Image: Flickr/Alberto Carrasco Casado. CC BY 2.0.