Xi's Air Defense Offense

December 10, 2013 Topic: Security Region: ChinaAsia

Xi's Air Defense Offense

A course of action for the United States.


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.

Declaratory Policy

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).

2. Announce that the U.S. will not recognize any ADIZ established in or over disputed territory: Establishing an ADIZ on top of territorial disputes is unilateral and escalatory and does not contribute toward peaceful, multilateral dispute resolution, a stated U.S. goal. Such actions also do not create a zone of cooperation, as the PRC MND claims. The U.S. has already stated that it would not recognize the ECSADIZ established by the PRC. However, regarding the possibility of China establishing a South China Sea ADIZ, a senior official travelling with Vice President Joe Biden during his recent trip to Asia reportedly remarked that Washington is requesting Beijing not to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea “without first consulting countries concerned.” That turns logic on its head. By China’s own admission, there are territorial disputes in both seas. Therefore, the U.S. should apply similar principles to both areas. If the U.S. would not recognize the Chinese ECSADIZ, the U.S. cannot and should not recognize a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the establishment of Chinese ADIZs in the East and South China Seas would effectively hem in Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, a U.S. partner and an international waterway, respectively, and create more instability in the region.

3. Make clear to China that its rise cannot be a peaceful one without accepting a proper peer-relationship with Japan: The U.S. has exerted ample policy attention on how to avert a conflict between the established global power, itself, and the aspiring (rising) global power, China. But by being overly focused on “the larger picture,” it is missing the seething tension that is bubbling at the regional level. The U.S. needs to manage carefully the rivalry between the regional status quo power, Japan, and the regional rising power, China. At present, China has a difficult time accepting and acknowledging Japan’s leadership role in the region (even though Japan has contributed greatly to the region’s economic development, including that of China’s). For the future, it is doubtful China would like to see Japan rank as a power at all.

Action Policy

1. Step up efforts to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance and enhance alliance capabilities: Japan’s role in the regional security structure is at a turning point, and the U.S. needs to provide both political and moral support. There are various benchmarks that need to be met for Japan to become a full alliance partner to the U.S. and a normalized member of the Asia-Pacific community. On the alliance side, the two countries have agreed to revise the 1997 Guideline for Defense Cooperation, deepen and broaden security and defense collaboration in the region and potentially elsewhere in the world, and continue to move forward on U.S. military alignment in Japan. Internal to Japan, Prime Minister Abe must lead his government in re-interpreting the Japanese constitution on the role of the Japanese military, deciding whether to boost defense spending, and reconsidering Japan’s force posture to better protect its territory.

2. Provide maritime domain awareness to Southeast Asian partners: Maintaining the freedom of the maritime commons is a responsibility of all, not a few select countries. But to do so, countries need to have the capability to see what is transpiring in areas of interest and in areas of dispute. The U.S. should work with its allies and partners in Southeast Asia to build a common maritime domain awareness so that Southeast Asian nations can avoid accidents by communicating with each other better over this body of water and airspace that they all share; and encourage good behavior by allowing everyone to monitor everyone else’s presence. These benefits are applicable to nations outside of the SCS region as well.

3. Develop and publish a coherent U.S. and alliance military strategy as recommended by Congress: In the midst of the U.S. Rebalance, and a complex political/economic/security relationship with China, the lack of such a strategy, in which the U.S. publically spells out the defense of allied and partner territory, interests, and lives, sows doubt and invites challenge to gauge U.S. limits. It also allows certain interests in China to demagogue U.S. intentions. A defensive strategy that disavows hostile intent toward China, that seeks to avoid escalation or attacks on the mainland, yet promises an aggressive, determined and effective defense of allies and partners in a long conflict, will serve to reassure allies and dissuade China.

A Path Forward

China is testing the boundaries of U.S. tolerance for behavior that directly challenges Washington’s often-stated interests for no unilateral action to change the status quo and the free and secure access to the maritime commons. China’s actions also challenge the interests of U.S. allies and partners, and their perceptions are vitally important. The U.S. is a Pacific power, but its presence in Asia is physically guaranteed by permanent bases, rotational forces, and pre-positioned equipment on allied and partner soil. Therefore, the U.S. needs to act promptly, decisively and strategically to reinforce its assurance to its allies and partners and strengthen its deterrence against further unilateral destabilizing actions by China.

Lieutenant General Wallace “Chip” Gregson is the Senior Director of the China and the Pacific Program at the Center for the National Interest. He was formerly the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.