Reacting to China’s ADIZ

David S. McDonough offers an alternative take on the United States' reaction to China's "air defence identification zone" over the East China sea.
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December 2, 2013
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James Manicom has offered an interesting take on China’s recently announced “air defence identification zone” (ADIZ). He acknowledges how the ADIZ might have complicated matters in the East China Sea. But he’s also quick to criticize the Americans for imposing double standards on the whole issue, in which China’s declared ADIZ is explicitly attacked while those of Japan and South Korea are not. Indeed, Manicom also takes the United States to task for what he sees as a reaction that “vastly exceeded the severity of China’s action.”

In this formulation, China’s announced ADIZ was not a challenge to the status quo of either the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands or the surrounding East China Sea. China has already sent aircraft and coast guard ships that intruded in this disputed area, for example. As he concludes, America’s overreaction would only in turn strengthen the hardliners in Beijing.

I would like to take issue with Manicom’s characterization of these recent events, in which he seems too prone to criticize the United States while giving China the benefit of the doubt.

First, it should be noted that China proffered an extremely expansive definition of an ADIZ—one that goes beyond what is normally accepted. Yes, other countries maintain ADIZs as well, including not least the United States. But an ADIZ is typically directed only at those aircraft that intend to enter national airspace. It’s not meant to force all aircraft to register their respective flight plans.

In contrast, China has declared that all aircraft entering its ADIZ must notify and respond to Chinese authorities, or risk possible military action for non-compliance. This might simply be a mistake on China’s part, in which it announced an ADIZ without proper attention on the acceptable norms underlying such a declaration. A more worrisome possibility is that Beijing is intentionally using the ADIZ as leverage in its tussle with Japan over these disputed islands in what the U.S. fears could be the beginning of “a series of assertive moves.”

Second, China has effectively introduced a very coercive mechanism to extend its sovereignty claims in this disputed area. Extending what was primarily a maritime spat into the airspace over the East China Sea adds a whole new dimension to the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute, especially with the inclusion of an explicit threat that any aircraft found in non-compliance will face possible military action. None of its neighbours can now question whether China feels entitled to use military force to back up its ADIZ claims over this area.

As such, China’s ADIZ does indeed represent a fundamental change of the region’s status quo in both the nature of its claims and the extent of its threat. It’s potentially more significant than China sending on an ad hoc basis either aircraft or ships into this disputed area, in so far as these previous actions did not try to negate the ability of other countries to do likewise. China’s ADIZ is also inherently destabilizing. After all, it creates uncertainty in the minds of regional players and pressure on China to undertake military action or risk losing face, which together seems to create the perfect recipe for miscalculation and escalation—a fact brought home when China reportedly scrambled its fighter jets to the area.

Third, it’s curious that Manicom speaks about a “vast” overreaction on America’s part. After all, he also agrees with Washington’s decision to deploy B-52s into China’s ADIZ and to assert the legitimacy of military operations in this region. Indeed, his major disagreement with the United States seems to be less a matter of action than of rhetoric, specifically America’s claim that the ADIZ represents a destabilizing alteration of the status quo. Yet it seems a bit of a stretch to say that this administration’s rhetoric alone counts as a serious overreaction. One would think U.S. actions here speak much louder than its words.

Lastly, irrespective of whether China is bluffing or not, the United States is right to be concerned—and not simply with what I see as some destabilizing action with regard to its ADIZ. After all, rather than an isolated incident, China’s expansive ADIZ is only the latest in a long line of increasingly expansive sovereignty claims, from its so-called 9-dash line claim that encompasses much of the South China Sea to its aggressive posturing vis-à-vis other claimants to parts of these waters, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, which have already led to a growing number of maritime incidents.

As such, the United States is not only reacting to China’s declared ADIZ. It’s also responding to what Washington sees as a worrisome trend in Chinese behaviour—one that raises some understandable doubts as to its so-called “peaceful rise.”

With this in mind, the U.S. decision to opt for an especially firm stand on the ADIZ seems completely understandable. Manicom seems to assume that this overreaction will only stiffen hardliners in Beijing. Yet, by firmly signaling potential consequences, it could very well encourage more cooperative elements to finally rein in their more extreme counterparts. At the very least, such a response could help deter China from continuing to press increasingly assertive maritime and now airspace claims in the South and East China Seas.