Peaceful rise, anyone? China’s East China Sea air defence identification zone
28 Nov 2013|

B-52 and B-2 of the US Air ForceOn 23 November, Beijing declared an East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which not only overlaps significantly with Japan’s but also with Taiwan’s and South Korea’s ADIZs. While the Chinese Ministry of Defense insists that the ADIZ is in ‘accordance with current international practice’, many countries have a very different view, including Australia and its ally the United States. Foreign Minister Julia Bishop called the establishment of the zone ‘unhelpful in light of current regional tensions’ and summoned the Chinese ambassador to express her concerns. US State Secretary John Kerry warned that such ‘escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident’. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared the ADIZ a ‘destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region’.

The ADIZ is problematic indeed. The rules demand that all aircraft flying in the ADIZ are required to notify flight plans to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, respond to orders by Chinese authorities during the flight, and face military action in case of non-compliance. Rule number three specifically states that ‘China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in identification or refuse to follow the instructions’. China provided a very assertive understanding of an ADIZ, defining it as ‘an area of air space established by a coastal state beyond its territorial airspace to timely identify, monitor, control and react to aircraft entering this zone with potential air threats’. In contrast, the Pentagon sees it as an ‘airspace of defined dimensions within which the ready identification, location, and control of airborne vehicles are required’. As Secretary Kerry stressed, the US also ‘does not apply its ADIZ procedures on foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace’.

In sum, China’s ADIZ undermines the freedom of overflight in East Asia. But there are at least four even broader strategic implications.

First, forget China’s ‘peaceful rise’. Beijing’s latest attempt of, as the New York Times called it, ‘asserting sovereignty’ is part of a larger pattern of a more assertive Chinese strategic posture.  As its power grows, China feels increasingly emboldened to use coercive action to claim what it considers to be its ‘spheres of influence’. First the ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea, now the ADIZ in the East China Sea. What’s next? Earlier this year, some Chinese intellectuals and senior military officials claimed sovereignty over Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. Seemingly undisturbed by growing regional concerns about its long-term strategic intentions, Beijing demonstrates again that it doesn’t fully adhere to existing international norms and standards. As regional countries respond, the balance between cooperation and competition among the major powers in Asia will become even more volatile.

Second, if this is what China’s Premier Xi Jinping had in mind when he talked about a ‘new type of great power relationship’ between Beijing and Washington, thanks but no thanks. The incompatibility between US and Chinese approaches to norms and behaviour in the Asia–Pacific couldn’t be clearer. As well, the ADIZ forced the US to declare support for its Japanese ally and to reiterate its position that ‘Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands’. Further alarmed by China’s behaviour, US allies and partners will be driven even closer to Washington and towards strengthening their military capabilities. Beijing appears willing to do all it can to promote Sino-US strategic rivalry.

Third, the risk of serious accidents and miscalculations increases. By establishing the ADIZ, Beijing is extending the ongoing skirmish with Japan over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands from the maritime domain into air space. The risk is high since the Chinese military might soon feel the pressure of being seen like a paper tiger, unable or unwilling to impose the rules. The US military already called its bluff by sending two B-52 Bombers through the air zone without notifying Beijing and declaring that it won’t change this practice. Yet, to avoid looking weak, the PLA might decide to take more risks in the future, with potentially serious consequences.

Finally, there are strategic ramifications for Australia. One positive implication is that the ADIZ will probably lead to renewed US engagement in Asia, after the second Obama administration appeared to take its eyes of the ball when it came to implementing the ‘rebalance’ towards Asia. At the same time, however, it could become much harder for the new Abbott government to chart a course between the US and China. Indeed, the government sees eye-to-eye with the US and Japan when it comes to future security order in Asia, raising the possibility of closer trilateral defence cooperation and a deeper Australian involvement in East Asia. In contrast, Beijing already reacted angrily to Canberra taking sides, signalling the possibility of frostier Sino-Australian ties. In a more competitive Asia, Australia will be increasingly forced to show its colours.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of United States Air Force via Wikimedia Commons.