Did China make strategic error with air zone?
November 26th, 2013
11:52 AM ET

Did China make strategic error with air zone?

By Michael Mazza, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.

It’s difficult to know precisely what was behind China’s decision to institute an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) at the weekend. Chinese claims to the contrary, it is clearly meant to up the pressure on Japan in the two countries’ dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which the ADIZ extends. Internal Chinese political dynamics may also be at work here; President Xi Jinping, for example, must be benefitting from taking a strong stance vis-à-vis Japan. But whatever the reason for the creation of the ADIZ at this time, Beijing may ultimately regret it – and not only because it increases the likelihood of a violent incident over the East China Sea.

First off, the move needlessly antagonizes Taiwan and South Korea. The fact is that it puts a wrinkle into recently stable cross-Strait relations, as Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the Senkakus (known as the Diaoyutai in Taiwan), and it now has an overlapping ADIZ with the mainland.

The ADIZ is even more surprising in the context of China-South Korea relations, which have looked particularly warm of late. Seoul’s quarrels with Japan over history have been at their worst in recent months, and Beijing has effectively stoked that fire. But China’s new ADIZ overlaps with South Korea’s; covers the disputed Socotra Rock (which both countries claim as within their own exclusive economic zone); and may extend a bit too close for comfort to Jeju Island, where South Korea is building a major naval base. In one fell swoop, Beijing has reminded Seoul that South Korea has more in common with Japan than it normally likes to admit.

Second, rather than lead to heightened wariness in Washington about getting caught in the middle of the dispute, the United States clearly considers the ADIZ a challenge to its support for Japan and its ability to operate freely in international airspace above the East China Sea. That explains the promptness with which Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued statements about the ADIZ.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Kerry expressed deep concern and described the ADIZ creation as an “escalatory” and “unilateral action” designed to “change the status quo” in the region. After also expressing concern and describing the action as “destabilizing,” Hagel felt compelled to assert that the implementation of the ADIZ “will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region” and to “reaffirm” that “Article V of the U.S. Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.” An unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal that “there would likely be a demonstration of American military resolve to continue operating in the area of the islands without Chinese interference.”

Both statements – especially Hagel’s – are a boost for Japan, and neither was well received in Beijing. But things could get even worse for China. Indeed, Beijing will have much more cause for concern if the ADIZ leads the United States to alter its officially neutral position on the sovereignty dispute, something that Washington has thus far been at pains to avoid.

In his statement, Kerry noted that “we don’t support efforts by any state to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace.” This raises an interesting question: If U.S. aircraft operating in the vicinity of the Senkakus refuse Chinese requests for identification, will that mark an implicit rejection of Chinese claims to sovereignty over the islands?

An explicit recognition of Japanese sovereignty, moreover, may no longer be considered out of bounds in Washington. China has consistently opted for escalation over the past 14 months; the ADIZ is only the latest action to not only test Japan but the U.S.-Japan alliance as well. U.S. policy regarding the Senkakus has always been somewhat confusing: the United States recognizes Japanese administration of the islands, but takes no position on competing sovereignty claims, while considering defense of the islands to be a treaty obligation. The logic for maintaining that policy is weakening. An Obama administration that must be growing tired of China’s tests may be looking for ways to communicate in unqualified terms that the U.S.-Japan alliance is an unshakeable one.

Japan, meanwhile, will be looking for ways to communicate its own resolve in the face of Chinese pressure. Since the Japanese government’s purchase from private owners of three of Senkaku islands last year, Japan’s actions have generally been non-escalatory. But Tokyo can issue only so many diplomatic demarches, and has increasingly limited alternative means of signaling steadfastness to Beijing. The government has long toyed with the idea of stationing officials on the islands. As the Wall Street Journal reported in September:

“A top Japanese government official said Tuesday that stationing government officials on a group of disputed islands is one way of strengthening Japan’s claim to them…Placing government officials on the islands ‘remains one option,’ chief government spokesman Yoshihida Suga told reporters at a regular news conference. ‘Under what circumstance we’ll consider [that option] will be decided strategically,’ Mr. Suga said.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his advisors may be considering whether now is the time. But regardless of what they decide in this instance, Chinese actions are likely pushing Japan closer to adopting this course rather than intimidating Tokyo into inaction.

Over the last year, China may have succeeded in altering the decades-long status quo in the East China Sea. But actions once apparently aimed at upsetting the reality of Japanese control of the islands now increasingly appear aimed at asserting Chinese control. The difference may be subtle, but it marks a dangerous threshold. Crossing it may lead Japan, the United States, and others to take the very steps that Beijing most wants to forestall.

It’s still too soon to tell, but China’s new ADIZ may prove to be a strategic blunder – one that ultimately puts China’s own interests at risk, while having lasting repercussions for stability in Asia.

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Topics: Asia • China • Foreign Policy • Japan

soundoff (300 Responses)
  1. sand

    usa and britain ireland australia norway and all those losers should just wait there mothers will be leveled to the ground they are messing with the wrong people 1 nuke and britain will be gone 1 nuke and australia is dust if all of them want a fight then they will taste what real pain is.

    November 28, 2013 at 8:15 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      Nonsense. Ireland? Norway? Australia?
      Please.

      November 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
    • LiveFree

      What one can expect from sand and dust?

      November 30, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Reply
    • Abhi

      Didnt realise chinese troll are stupid too

      January 8, 2014 at 9:38 am | Reply
  2. Mark

    Australia is actually rather large, so it would take more than one nuke. Of course, the US would then nuke China a thousand times and kill a billion people and the remaining several hundred million would die slowly of starvation and radiation.

    November 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • globeharmony

      Why do you want to nuke China? You assume Sand is Chinese? LOL.

      His clear agenda is for U.S. to fight China. You fall right into it.

      December 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Reply
    • Francis Liew

      A Chinese retaliatory nuke strikes would kill half the American population. The other half would slowly starve to death or die of radiation sickness in a nuclear winter. Don't you think this MUTUAL ASSURED DESTRUCTION IS MAD? Then why make dumb remarks?

      December 10, 2013 at 6:59 am | Reply
  3. chrissy

    The US would be one of the last countries to NUKE anyone, much less Australia!

    November 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @chrissy,
      I know you"re too young to remember, but I'm not. I can assure you that we were the FIRST to nuke anyone.

      November 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        As far as I know, the US is the first and the last to use a nuclear bomb.

        For what's it's worth, I still believe diplomacy should be the first weapon of defense.

        November 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        @banasy, you are right: we are indeed the last SO FAR, as far as I know.

        November 28, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
      • banasy©

        I would hope that the lessons learned from Nagasaki and Hiroshima would be enough to deter anyone from taking such a permanent action, JIF.
        Unfortunately, people either have short memories, or think that the risks are worth it to forward their agenda, whatever that may be.

        November 28, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  4. chrissy

    Thank you @ banasy! I was thinking that same thing when i read his post to me earlier. And even if not, our POTUS would not be the first to nuke anyone! And why Australia even??? Lmao

    November 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  5. chrissy

    Lol @ Maersk, sure sounds to me like you have a mouthful of that chinese stuff yourself! Hows it taste? Lmao

    November 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  6. chrissy

    Wanta know how i could tell @ Maersk? Cuz you cant speak properly! Lol and i betcha aint sittin down either huh? Been bending over too much too huh? You might wanta re~think those extra curricular activities of yours! Pole smoking isnt good for the diet no matter what anyone else tells you!

    November 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    In any case @ Maersk, happy gobble gobble day! Chao! Lmao

    November 28, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    In any case @ Maersk, Happy G o b b l e day to you! Lol chao!

    November 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  9. TTT

    This article is full of self-complacency.

    November 29, 2013 at 1:29 am | Reply
  10. TTT

    Look

    November 29, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  11. Seeker

    going to war is not an option...what a load of crap....have we learned nothing......thousands of years of war...murder, slaughter, children, women etc...who were once enemies are now friends, and who were once friends are now enemies...and the cycle goes on...the only difference now...is we have the power to destroy the ship we call earth...to end all life on this planet...what good would this accomplish...
    lets not let the failure of politicians/people of power do this again...we as people of this earth must realize, accept and act on our responsibility for each other and our planet...
    there is a solution that does not involve war...lets seek this solution together

    November 29, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  12. Josh

    No one is going to nuke anyone or go to war with anyone. This is probably some bizarro strategy by China to get something it wants Cuban Missile "Crisis" style. It's just so pathetic and self-defeating, it almost seems like a plan that North Korea would have cooked up.

    November 29, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  13. chrissy

    Exactly @ Josh! Political posturing! By a bunch of brats about WHO has the biggest and baddest TOYS!

    November 29, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Oh and who has the biggest and best playground!

    November 29, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  15. Bo

    The author is dumb or pretends not to see the strategic significance od action by china. By establishing the zone, china asserts its authority beyond its territory. 50 years down the road, they will exert control over the islands.

    November 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
    • Francis Liew

      How true? What would Nippon and the US do then? You think they are willing to commit national suicide over some barren rocks and open seas?

      December 10, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  16. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I see several writers here using words like dumb, stupid, moron, and fool. The arguments accompanying these insults are usually based on irrational premises.
    Typical is the frequent reference to a Grail-like "Peace" that has never existed because of human nature and the necessity for territoriality if human beings are to survive as a species.
    There will always be wars, between nations and between individuals. Advocacy of complete disarmament is suicidal.

    November 30, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      The unintentional transparency in many of the banners for world peace reveals a simple desire for Butter instead of Guns, The cry is for more and more butter: not just cheap butter, but free butter.

      November 30, 2013 at 6:04 am | Reply
  17. No china

    The purpose of the hegemony of China is world control, or is it resources?

    November 30, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  18. skeptic

    Did China make strategic error with air zone?
    China's only mistake is trying to keep its people from freely accessing information around the world. Keeping its people stupid is what's keeping China backward.

    November 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  19. Truffelman

    And what will we do, have another chicken Navy Pilot land a super secret aircraft on the mainland after an incident over the islands . . . while we sit and complain. That certainly worked. They got all the data they needed and made us disassemble the plane to remove it vs. flying it out. Any wonder they believe they can do anything?

    December 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | Reply
  20. Gabri

    error, error你妈逼个屁。操

    December 6, 2013 at 6:40 am | Reply
  21. oh

    omg

    December 6, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  22. nunu

    A lot of western people concern human rights of china and these people may be the friend of Chinese. However,Mr. Michael Mazza (the autor)is unhappy because of ADIZ but I do. Mr.Michael Mazza is not the friend of Chinese definitely. I suggest not approving his visa to China for ever. Father more, China should do more things which the enemy not delight with.

    December 26, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Reply
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