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

June 19, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: JapanVietnamUnited States

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.

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.

Battling Misconceptions

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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:

“An updated supporting joint concept will also describe an evolutionary approach to joint and allied operations across service, component and multinational lines in A2/AD environments. Building on existing JOAC precepts, the refined concept will incorporate the most useful ideas from the existing “ASB Concept” to include a force that is networked, fully integrated, and capable of cross-domain attack and defense in depth by U.S., allied and coalition forces in the global commons...

…Based on recent assessments, current doctrinal command-and-control methodologies will likely be inadequate to address A2/AD environments where beyond-line-of-sight communications and other connectivity between units can be disrupted or denied by an adversary. Therefore, evolutionary modifications to command-and-control structures and protocols are necessary in order to effectively command and control Joint Forces in a heavily disrupted electromagnetic-spectrum environment. Additionally, cross-domain expertise within component and lower-echelon operations centers must be leveraged to create cross-domain effects in support of the commanders’ intent and schemes of maneuver.”[5]

What Does Beijing Think of Changes to ASB?  

While there has been little to no scholarly literature articulating a Chinese position on JAM-GC in open-source texts, there is every reason to believe China would see this as nothing more than an evolutionary upgrade to the ASB concept—with the above text indicating as such—and an even greater threat.[6]

Over the last eighteen months, we have seen Beijing make various attempts to strengthen its A2/AD platforms and defensive systems in areas that would negate ASB. For example, recent sleuthing of Chinese open-source material has revealed preliminary efforts to develop sonar nets in the Yellow, East and South China Seas, something that would target the very heart of ASB: U.S. Navy attack submarines.[7] China also still has an active interest in Russian military technology, with recently confirmed purchases of the S-400 air-defense platform, as well as continued interest in the Su-35 fighter, Russian airplane engines, and ultra-quiet submarines and technology—all items that would greatly enhance Beijing’s A2/AD capabilities.


Clearly the United States, Japan, and Vietnam have a shared interest in deterring China from not only declaring a new ADIZ in the South China Sea—an area through which over $5.3 trillion in seaborne trade passes every year—but also enforcing such a zone. Here, there is a clear opportunity for a trilateral approach to shift Beijing’s calculus in terms of creating such a zone. Such a strategy must make halting or at least dramatically slowing the foundations of any Chinese South China Sea ADIZ project an absolute priority—growing island-reclamation projects. The reason for this is obvious: If China were to deploy aircraft, coast-guard vessels, warships, radar stations, and various other platforms on multiple islands across the South China Sea, Beijing would have the tools necessary to declare and enforce a new ADIZ. While there are many different approaches that are certainly possible, they must be balanced with a clear effort to ensure tensions in the area of the South China Sea are not enflamed even more. The three below—utilizing the classic “carrot and stick approach”—should merit strong consideration. Such recommendations could be attempted as part of a complete strategy or utilized selectively with different levels of intensity on a case by case basis as needed:

1.   Work to Negate the Growing A2/AD vs. ASB Security Dilemma: At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), explained that “[t]he Chinese government and military never said they were going to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea” and that the creation of such a zone would be based on Beijing’s view of the security situation in the area—a line that has now been repeated almost word for word by multiple Chinese officials recently.[9] The United States, along with the support of Japan and Vietnam, should test such declarations.

One possible method for doing this would be to look for ways in which Washington and Beijing can halt the deployment of weapons platforms that only engrain what is quickly becoming a high-tech security dilemma by those who wish to retain access to areas like the East and South China Sea (the United States and its partners) and those who wish to restrict access to such near seas (China). The United States, with the support of Japan and Vietnam, should propose that Washington and Beijing limit the deployment of selected future types of next-generation weapons platforms that could greatly enhance their competing A2/AD and ASB strike systems—an effort to break the reactionary cycle of events. For example, considering the lethal nature and game-changing capabilities of hypersonic weapons, this could be one area where both sides could work to halt such deployments to the Asia-Pacific region. Such an agreement could go a long way to “freeze” the A2/AD and ASB security dilemma where it is when other types of next-generation weapons and defensive systems seem ripe for deployment. This could (at least in theory) show China that a new ADIZ in the South China Sea would be unneeded, as the United States and its partners are actively making good-faith efforts to address its security concerns and working to break this growing security dilemma.

2.   Time for “Shamefare”: While Washington and its partners must reach out to Beijing in an effort to ease its security concerns, they should expose to the world any increased efforts to enhance its island-reclamation projects in the South China Sea—the foundation of any new ADIZ in the region.

CNN's recent reporting in the South China Sea—providing clear video and pictures of Chinese island-reclamation projects—and reports and satellite images provided by CSIS' Asia Maritime Project are excellent examples of what Washington, along with Japan and Vietnam, should be doing on a regular basis. They must set out to win the media narrative and define Beijing's motives for reclamation projects in the South China Sea—projects that would be the life blood of a new ADIZ. While it seems unlikely that Washington and its partners and allies will be able to force Beijing to scale back its present island-reclamation projects, they can ensure the world is aware of every move Beijing makes—making China think twice about reclaiming any new islands and hence limiting the ease with which Beijing can declare a new ADIZ. Here are some examples of how what this author calls “shamefare” could work in practice:

A: When China takes any new action to expand its capabilities in the South China Sea—like constructing a new runway that could be used to patrol the area or installing sophisticated military hardware like antiship weapons systems—photos and video should be distributed to the media immediately.

B: If U.S., Japanese, or Vietnamese vessels exercising freedom of navigation come under Chinese harassment in the South China Sea, the incident should be captured on video and placed on YouTube and other prominent social-media channels immediately.

“Shaming” China repeatedly for its actions will allow America and its partners to win the battle of competing narratives and put Beijing on the defensive. China would be left having to constantly explain its actions time and time again. America and its partners should use these tactics to their advantage.

3.   Time for Increased “Lawfare”: The United States, along with Japan and Vietnam, should work with all other claimants in the South China Sea to settle any disputes in the region that do not involve China. While clearly not an easy task, Beijing's growing mastery of the region through growing island-reclamation projects could spur these parties to reach an accommodation. With this achieved, all parties that have claims against China could file their own legal complaints jointly in international courts.

While “lawfare” will likely not evoke a formal challenge from Beijing beyond its standard claims of “indisputable sovereignty,” as is the case with the Philippines’ lawsuit, a much larger filing by a united front of nations would certainly constitute a stronger action.[10] Washington by design would take no official stance, but it could certainly work “unofficially” to spur such actions while actively offering words of encouragement and intentionally pushing Beijing to settle such disputes with its neighbors in a multilateral setting. Even a flood of separate lawsuits by each claimant, filed simultaneously for maximum impact, could leave Beijing scrambling—stuck in a public-relations nightmare it wouldn’t be able to easily dismiss. Such actions could deter China from reclaiming any more islands or reefs and also, by default, from setting up a new ADIZ.

Harry Kazianis is an Executive Editor of the National Interest, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest, as well as a Senior Fellow (nonresident) at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He previously served as Editor of The Diplomat and as WSD-Handa Fellow (nonresident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: PACNET.

This article is part of the report, “Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges,” which can be read in its entirety, here. The Center for a National Interest would like to thank the Center for Global Progress for its important support of this initiative, and would also like to thank the Research Institute for Peace and Security and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam for participating in the project.

Image: Wikimedia/Retxham


[1] This section draws from Harry J. Kazianis, “Air-Sea Battle and ADIZ: A Reaction to a Reaction,” China Brief, December 5, 2013, accessed May 1, 2015[tt_news]=....

[2] Peter Mattis, “China’s East China Sea ADIZ: Framing Japan to Help Washington Understand,” China Brief, December 5, 2013, accessed May 1, 2015

[3] For a detailed analysis of the Air-Sea Battle Controversy, please see Harry J. Kazianis, “The Evolution of Air-Sea Battle,” The Center for International Maritime Security, February 14, 2014, accessed June 7, 2015

[4] While the author did attend this hearing in person, please see U.S. Navy, “Read Admiral Foggo Discusses Air-Sea Battle Concept,” NavyLive, October 10, 2013 accessed October 14, 2013

[5] Terry S. Morris et al, “Securing Operational Access: Evolving the Air-Sea Battle Concept,” The National Interest, February 11, 2015, accessed May 2, 2015

[6] Please note while ASB has officially become JAM-GC, for the purposes of consistency, the author will continue to use ASB throughout this text, as this is the more popular term used.

[7] Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight, “Wired for Sound in the Near Seas,” USNI Proceedings Magazine, April 2014, accessed May 7, 2015

[8] This section is based on the following: Harry J. Kazianis, “Washington Needs a More Assertive China Policy,”RealClearWorld, May 31, 2015, accessed June 2, 2015

[9] Minnie Chan, “China Denies it is Readying Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea,” South China Sea Morning Post, May 31, 2015, accessed June 6, 2015

[10] For background information on the application and concepts around lawfare, please see Carl Thayer, “Lawfare or Warfare?: History, International Law and Geo-Strategy,” The Diplomat, July 4, 2014, accessed June 7, 2015.