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?

“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.