On Saturday, China announced that it was establishing an East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The reason it gave was that countries such as the US and Japan have long had such zones and Beijing needed to follow suit.
China’s major political and economic centers are all relatively exposed on the country’s coastline and early warning periods for these cities are short. China is therefore developing an “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) strategy, and it was just a matter of time before it would also establish an ADIZ.
On Nov. 12, during the third plenary session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, the party pledged that it would achieve “the Chinese dream of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation” and announced that it is planning to establish a national security council. In addition, it displayed its nuclear submarines on Nov. 20. This series of big moves is very worrying.
The fact is that the East China Sea ADIZ came into effect immediately after the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced its establishment at 10am on Saturday. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) followed up on the announcement by sending two surveillance aircraft escorted by airborne early-warning aircraft and fighter jets to patrol the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) at 6pm that evening. No neighboring country was able to make a timely response, and that must have pleased China.
The US Department of State and Department of Defense expressed deep concern in response to the announcement. While affirming Washington’s obligations under the US-Japan Security Treaty, they also said they were worried that China’s actions might be a unilateral change to the “status quo.”
In addition to saying that it would not make any changes to its military activities in the region, the defense department also expressed worries that misjudgements or miscalculations could lead to military conflict, and the East China Sea ADIZ would give the Chinese and Japanese air forces a good excuse to open fire. The question is how the two countries will avoid any mishaps and how tensions over the ADIZ will affect the daily operations of Japan’s Naha Flight Information Region. These are issues that are of great concern for all.
Japan believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is taking a hardline approach externally in order to promote internal unity, because he has achievemed little following his accession to power about a year ago. This also means that Beijing has abandoned the line laid down by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who suggested that China conceal its ambition while biding its time. Instead, it is now moving toward becoming a great power.
One thing that we should pay particular attention to is the timing of China’s sudden announcement. While it was criticizing Japan, saying that there was no foundation in international law for the Japanese ADIZ, Beijing suddenly announced that it was establishing the East China Sea ADIZ. Making such an announcement at such a time was rather odd.
China is likely to also establish a South China Sea ADIZ. The question is whether Beijing will draw the zone along the “nine-dash line” — also known as the “U-shaped line” — in the South China Sea in order to be able to closely monitor US military planes, or if it will restrain itself slightly at the risk of domestic political struggles.
This is a tough issue for the Chinese authorities. If and when it is established, a South China Sea ADIZ will inevitably lead to suspicions from the US and South Korea. The fact is that the East China Sea ADIZ is very close to Suyan Rock (苏岩礁), an islet disputed by China and South Korea.
China and Japan should have handled the overlapping of their identification zones through diplomatic channels. If Beijing had waited patiently until talks failed and then claimed that it was “forced” to establish the East China Sea ADIZ, it could have gained the upper hand by blaming everything on Tokyo. Instead, the Chinese authorities have adopted a harsh line of “revolutionary diplomacy” that is setting up a clash with Japan.
At present, we can only speculate as to whether this is Xi’s idea, or whether he has no choice but to bet on the ADIZ because he has come under huge pressure from an impatient PLA.
HoonTing is a commentator in Taipei.
Translated by Eddy Chang