“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?
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.
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.
While China’s military capabilities are growing, they pale in comparison to those of the United States in terms of command and control (C2), communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, deployable forces across all possible domains of conflict, overall training, sheer technological edge, and deployability around the globe. To negate such capabilities, Beijing has developed a strategic posture that places its forces in a position to wage an asymmetric struggle. PLA forces would utilize A2/AD tactics and strategies in an attempt to exact vicious losses using ballistic and cruise missiles, ultra-quiet conventional submarines, advanced mines, possibly UAVs, and other weapons that are sophisticated and increasingly home-grown to keep U.S. and allied forces away from China’s near seas. Beijing sees strategic suicide in allowing a larger power the military advantage of building up forces in and around its near seas and striking in mass. Halting or deterring such a buildup through an A2/AD strategy—with various Chinese scholars arguing for massive preemptive strikes if conflict seemed certain—seems like the best approach, should a conflict ever occur.
Why the United States Developed ASB
In response to growing A2/AD challenges around the world—and with a clear focus on China’s and Iran’s growing A2/AD capabilities—the United States developed the operational concept of Air-Sea Battle. Holding a similar title to the 1980s NATO concept of AirLand Battle, ASB in very broad terms seeks to create a higher level of “jointness” between American air and sea power to overcome the challenges of A2/AD environments.
Since the ASB concept was first revealed in various formats in 2009/2010, the concept has proven controversial—mainly thanks to a detailed analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a prominent Washington think tank that in 2010 laid out a scenario in which ASB would be used in a war with China to strike targets on the mainland, an analysis that was not endorsed by the Pentagon.
However, the concept has been embraced by the Department of Defense (DoD) and evolved dramatically since the 2010 CSBA ASB report. ASB was reworked, differing substantially in tone, as well as in substance from the CSBA ASB concept. This new version of ASB, in order to avoid any lingering confusion, was treated to multiple official DoD briefings and explanations. Most Pentagon officials this author has spoken with over the last several years have explained ASB as a necessary aspect of America’s reconceptualization of how its armed forces will need to counter antiaccess challenges in a post–“war on terror” world and not as a strategy to fight a war against China, as many in the media have portrayed the concept.
At a 2013 House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee hearing, Rear Admiral James G. Foggo defined the concept in an effort to put growing confusion to rest:
“(ASB) is designed to assure access to parts of the “global commons”—those areas of the air, sea, cyberspace and space that no one “owns,” but which we all depend on—such as the sea lines of communication. Our adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies employ a range of military capabilities that impede the free use of these ungoverned spaces. These military capabilities include new generations of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles with improved range, accuracy, and lethality [which] are being produced and proliferated…Accordingly the Air-Sea Battle Concept is intended to defeat such threats to access.”
ASB Evolves: Enter JAM-GC
Over the last five or so years, the ASB concept has been tested in various wargames and integrated into Pentagon planning for usage in contested operating environments—with both China and Iran being the primary challenges. However, at the end of 2014, rumors began to surface that important changes to the operating concept were being made, with specific consideration given to making the concept truly joint and integrating all U.S. military branches to ensure the concept would truly be “cross-domain” and not just a U.S. Navy and Air Force project. In an article for The National Interest, experts from the Air-Sea Battle Office at the Pentagon laid out a vision for what Air-Sea Battle will become: