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China’s Air Defence Identification Zone and its role in Chinese Geo-Strategic Policy

Justin Bronk
Commentary, 4 December 2013
Aerospace, Air Power and Technology, China, Military Sciences, United States, Americas, Global Strategy and Commitments, Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, Pacific
China’s sudden declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone covering the uninhabited Senkaku islands is not intended to extend Chinese airspace as part of an area-denial/anti-access strategy. China’s real aim is instead to strengthen their quasi-legal territory claims in the long term.

The long-running territorial dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea recently flared up due to China’s sudden declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the islands and the disputed Chunxiao gas field.

Although this announcement has created a storm of protests from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States, the imposition of an ADIZ is by no means novel and in fact is a well established tool for formalising claims to national security interests in a region without attempting to expand territorial borders. Japan’s own ADIZ covers the Senkaku islands, the Chunxiao gas field and over half of the entire East China Sea. South Korea has an ADIZ to the North and the US has had one in place around Guam for many years.

Therefore, although the Chinese declaration has raised the diplomatic temperature in the region, the announcement of the ADIZ should be seen within this wider context. The ADIZ has been portrayed in Japan and much of the Western media as an ineffective attempt at area denial which greatly increases the risk of a miscalculation which could result in a major crisis. However, Chinese actions so far suggest that this is a misleading view and that the ADIZ should instead be seen as a long term strategy to strengthen China’s quasi-legal claims to the Senkakus, and test the Obama administration’s willingness to risk a protracted and costly stand-off over the East China Sea.  

Initial Reactions and the Risks of Accidental Escalation

Since the Chinese ADIZ was announced on 23 November 2013, USAF B-52 bombers, Japanese fighters, surveillance and AWACS aircraft, and South Korean P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft have all deliberately patrolled the zone without complying with the new requirements to maintain radio contact, submit flight plans, and identify themselves to Chinese air controllers. Furthermore, Japanese airlines have refused to comply with the new rules unless their destinations are in Chinese territory.

So far, despite Chinese Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke’s statement on 29 November that fighters had been scrambled to monitor US and Japanese aircraft in the ADIZ, no actual aerial challenge has been reported. The Chinese government has faced domestic criticism for not reacting to the incursions and has reacted by deploying early warning aircraft and jet fighters to patrol the disputed airspace.

This has led to widespread media speculation about the dangers of a miscalculation by either side in the air resulting in a wider crisis, especially between China and Japan, which could draw in the US. Certainly, the ADIZ is having the effect of worsening relations in an already tense standoff that has seen multiple incursions by Chinese naval and airborne assets into declared Japanese waters around the Senkakus. However, it is important to bear in mind that unlike other episodes in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, which recently saw the Japanese government threaten to shoot down any Chinese unmanned aircraft violating its airspace and China warning that such a move would be an act of war, the ADIZ has only been accompanied by vague warnings of ‘defensive emergency measures’ for violations. In fact, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said it was ‘incorrect’ to suggest China would shoot down aircraft which entered the zone without first identifying themselves.

This Chinese declaration suggests that the risks of military confrontation in the ADIZ are not as high as some in the media have suggested. Whilst the danger of miscalculation is certainly significant, it was already a factor in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute before the Chinese ADIZ was declared and is unlikely to greatly increase as a result.

What Role Does the ADIZ Play in Chinese strategy if it is Not Enforced?

The announcement that China is not threatening to shoot down intruders raises the question of what role China actually assigns to its new ADIZ in national security policy. There is no recognised legal justification for ADIZs but the extent to which they differ from no-fly zones can be seen in legal guidance on the subject that is issued to the US Military. In contrast to Chinese demands, the US Navy Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations states that:

‘The United States does not recognize the right of a coastal nation to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter national airspace nor does the United States apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. airspace. Accordingly, U.S. military aircraft not intending to enter national airspace should not identify themselves or otherwise comply with ADIZ procedures established by other nations, unless the United States has specifically agreed to do so’.

It is highly probable that the Chinese government views the ADIZ as largely symbolic, rather than a tool to significantly expand the airspace under China’s direct control. Despite the US Defense Secretary’s statement that the ADIZ was ‘a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region’, China’s actions do not seem especially unreasonable if one considers that all its neighbours in the region have put ADIZs in place to cover territories to which they attach significant national interest.

Viewed in this light, Chinese claims that international protestations over the zone are hypocritical do have a ring of truth to them. However, it is also worth noting that the Japanese and US ADIZ’s in the region were announced well ahead of implementation and drawn up as part of transparent processes. By contrast, China imposed its new ADIZ without prior warning or international consultation. This and the fact that China has demanded aircraft not destined for Chinese territory must comply are factors US criticism has specifically focussed on as Vice-President Joe Biden begins his Asia tour. The Chinese zone is also different from other ADIZ’s in the area since it covers territory that is internationally recognised as being controlled by a foreign power (Japan).

The fact that so far China has not taken any meaningful measures to actually enforce compliance with ADIZ requirements suggests that Japanese and American rhetoric painting it as a form of area denial over disputed territories is off the mark. The Chinese military is well aware that it cannot expect to enforce the conditions of the ADIZ where it overlaps with the Japanese zone without a full scale military confrontation.

Given the Chinese Government’s sensitivity to national humiliation, it seems odd for China to announce such a controversial measure without being able to enforce it, if that enforcement was required to accomplish the aims behind the policy. Of course, it is possible that Beijing simply underestimated the US and Japanese reaction to the ADIZ and are still debating how to respond. However, the lack of enforcement efforts suggests that China’s aim is not simple denial of access to the airspace above the Senkakus and Chunxiao gas field.

Alternate Chinese aims in establishing the ADIZ are likely to include establishing a long-term quasi-legal basis for boosting their sovereignty claims to the Senkaku islands. The hope would presumably be that if the other regional powers are able to continue to use the airspace without undue hindrance, protests against the ADIZ will slowly die down and in ten years time China can use the new ‘lines on the map’ to claim it has a long-term legal claim to the area. The imposition of another framework for military/legal/diplomatic confrontation in the area may also serve to complicate and constrain the planning of future Japanese and US manoeuvres in the region.

The ADIZ may also be evidence of a deliberate policy of testing the US commitment to its ‘Pacific pivot’ strategy in the face of continued problems for the Obama administration and American military exhaustion from the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. The immediate deployment of B-52s to fly through the new ADIZ represents more than a signal of refusal to acknowledge the zone on the part of the US.

In this light, it is a signal to China that the Pentagon and the Obama administration are willing to risk a protracted, tense and expensive stand-off in the East China Sea, and fully comprehend the potential geo-strategic implications of China’s increasing assertiveness in the Pacific. It also suggests a fear in Washington that if this ADIZ is not met with a strong and immediate response, Beijing may repeat the tactic in the South China Sea and elsewhere as part of its strategy to force the US and Japan away from the Chinese mainland.


Justin Bronk
Research Fellow, Airpower and Technology

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI. He is also... read more

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