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.

Post by:
Topics: Asia • China • Foreign Policy • Japan

soundoff (300 Responses)
  1. Tony foley

    I would not trust China as far as I can throw them. They will "never" be our friends. I have traveled there for the last ten years and you can forget about counting on them for anything. China is all about China. Remember, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer!! A word to the wise!

    November 26, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  2. Tony foley

    Obama has certainly set us back concerning them "owning" the U. S. as it applies to debt, property, etc. God help us all. We have been let down tremendously by this administration!

    November 26, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
    • Texasmike

      You are a fool. The majority of the debt is owed to social security. The Chinese are only at 1/8th the debt. They don't "own" us you ignorant bagger.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  3. indian

    The Chinese third rates have already annexed 1/3rd of indian state (licking paki asses). Not every country is a loser like India. U mess with US or other countries you get the HORNS China. Your days a numbered – Trust me on this one.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Vladimir

      This is typical China bullying smaller nations they think they can mess with. And they think the Spratley islands belong to them too, they' re full of it.

      November 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
      • Ma Ying Jeou, President of Republic of Taiwan

        I agree.
        China has been bullying Taiwan all the time.
        I will declare war on China if this country keeps bullying the peace loving people of 23 millions.

        November 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • potpot

      us allies should make war on china and bury them then divide the mainland for ourselves

      November 26, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply
      • Money talks

        You are just so naïve, China is not Iraq, if fighting nukes each other, no one will survive, this is not a video game, it will be the end of world, Dude.

        November 26, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • j.c.

      U.S. really think that they are the international police?

      November 26, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Reply
      • camperz

        Yes , yes we do.

        November 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
      • gwtheyrn

        Not only thinks it is, but is correct in that assumption. The US Navy keeps international trade and shipping lanes open. No one else has a presence on every continent.

        Every country in the world, be they friend or foe, relies on the United States military's strength and world-wide presence.

        November 26, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
      • PD

        Not think, are. Deal with it

        November 26, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
      • Desert Tortoise

        If international airspace and waters are to have any meaning then their bounds have to be enforced. The US is a trading nation and always has been. The principal that no nation may be denied the use of international waters led to this nation's first wars, with the Tripolitan Pirates.

        China has for many years been attempting to claim all of the South China Sea as Chinese territorial waters. The absurdity of this was vividly displayed in June of 2012 when an Indian warship departing Cam Rahn Bay after an official visit to Vietnam was accosted just 45 miles outside Cam Ranh Bay and told they were in Chinese territorial waters and needed to leave. Look at a map and see the absurdity of Chinas claim. The Indian navy ship ignored the Chinese ship. Unfortunately the Philippines do not have the military muscle to do the same and lost two islands to the Chinese in the past couple of years.

        China is now trying to assert territorial sovereignty over waters and airspace that are not hers to control. If the US does not challenge this immediately (as we have0 then you cede your rights to use the ocean to someone else. The US has never been willing to do this, and we build and pay for a navy strong enough to prevent other nations from denying us the right to use international waters and airspace.

        November 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
      • Pseudotriton

        nah, more like the biggest bully the world has seen.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • Money talks

      In this world, only money talks and muscle wins, you got be an Indian for not knowing it.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply
    • Greg

      China is looking to control Asia and impose vassal states on all of its neighbors, The American option is clear, a massive show of resolve like in 1996, when Clinton ordered the sixth fleet into the Taiwan Strait. Buzzing Shamghai with some drones wouldn't be a bad idea either. And giving Taiwan nukes. Lots of ways to choke the Chinese dragon. Use them.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Reply
      • Money talks

        I guess that you really don't know what 21st century war between two nuke powers like. we may have more nukes than them, but just few fall here, no many will survive either.

        November 26, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  4. Bill

    We have a very weak leader in the White House and the Chinese know it. For them, it's a simple matter of striking while the iron is hot.

    What sense would it make to wait another 3 years when a (perhaps) competent leader is running things?

    November 26, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • Yardley


      November 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • Marc

      You are a simpleton at best

      November 26, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      The whole world realizes Obama is weak

      November 26, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Reply
    • Carlos F. Suyi

      Sure your right let ask the cowboy George Bush to take again the chair

      November 26, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
      • Mcporkens

        Cowboy? Bush is a Connecticut native!

        November 26, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
      • Reythd

        Lol... Yea Bush with shoot them down. Haha

        November 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
      • Desert Tortoise

        Yes, the same Bush that let the Chinese push us around after one of their fighters collided with our EP-3 and, due to the severe damage inflicted by the ham-handed flying of this Chinese ace, had to land at Hainan Island. The same fearless leader who let the Chinese keep our people for two weeks and disassembled our airplane? Don't make me laugh. GW Bush was on brave when there was no risk. When faced with possible danger, he always folded.

        November 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  5. Please leave SE Asia China

    China tried but could not defeat Vietnam for one thousand years. China historical claims to SE Asia territory is therefore invalid.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      First of all, how does this issue has anything to do with Vietnam. Second of all, Vietnam was part of China for four periods of time after being defeated during the four Chinese domination.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Reply
      • Please leave SE Asia China

        China got their ass kick out every time it tried to conquer Vietnam! That is why it is still Vietnam today.
        It has everything to do with this article because this is a China aggression against all of Asia.

        November 26, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  6. RossOKC

    I feel this is a smart move by the administration. Supporting our allies, while avoiding open conflict. The current administration has been effective achieving American goals, like getting Bin Laden, without blundering into pointless and costly wars.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  7. burt

    Communist China has not even been around 100 years – why would anyone think that goverment has rights to those islands? Taiwan has a claim but not China. Mao's People's Republic of China burned all the treaties the previous goverment had with the US – so why would any 400 year old occupation of a few islands matter today. China must want a war to lower their population or something....

    November 26, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Reply
    • gwtheyrn

      No, they don't want a war. Part of the issue is internal Chinese politics. The second part is trying to set itself as a counterbalance to the US influence in Asia- a fool's errand at best. The third part is to show its own allies that it's on their "side" in opposition to the US on the world stage.

      In other words, 2/3 of this is all political theater on their part.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  8. Peter

    It just goes to show what historians have always known. Whenever a world power has a weak leader in charge, despots and tyrants from all over the planet come out of their rat holes to make geopolitical moves.

    We have the worst President in our history presiding over our great nation. What else can we expect?

    November 26, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
    • worldlypatriotusaveteran

      Your premise is flawed. China's autocratic regime has been around for over 45 years. So, they DID NOT recently come out of a rat hole, as you contend, due to any perception of weakness in Washington.

      The President's leadership style has absolutely NOTHING to do with this dispute, and China's recent ADIZ declaration.

      November 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  9. Eric

    The chinese have always bullied the small littoral states in the region off their internationally recognized marine boundaries and land mass. If the US thinks that the 21st century belongs to the Asia-Pacific region, and that it wants to shape the course of things in that region, then it should establish a credible, really believable presence there and speak for these small nations which keep getting brow-beaten by the increasingly belligerent chinese.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
    • gwtheyrn

      The US has a larger presence in Asia than China, and is, in fact, working on building alliances and economic partnerships with other nations in the area.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      The Chinese must have forced you to zuck their kowks. They must also have forced you to bend over.

      November 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  10. Peter

    I think we should start WWIII now while we still have the weapons to win it. Look at this way, the way our manufacturing know how has left the US, it won't be long before we need to ask China to sell us some tanks so we can go to war againts them! Think about that.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Reply
    • Money talks

      If you realize that will be WWIII, then you should stay away from it, it is 21st century, WW means the end of world with no winner, Dude.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:34 pm | Reply
    • DC


      November 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  11. china is evil

    Who care with the communist china if every body stop buying Chinese goods they will collapse dont buy or sale to china dont travel to them help the western china to revolt, help the student movements to revolt help Tibet movements and help Taiwan . Let the hongkong mafia have a deal with the communists, dont ALLOW ANY CHINESE CITIZEN COME TO CANADA AND USA while their ladies are pregnant as they want to deliver their babies here and the babies get a citizenship this have to stop , embargo and sanction CHINA they will collapse as Russia did those evil countries who help IRAN AND NORTH KOREA are the future Armageddon

    November 26, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • sky

      You are evil.

      November 26, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Reply
    • Money talks

      I guess that you must a country boy that doesn't know sky changed already.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • stephen48739

      I would respectfully disagree with you, on taking this course of action. Fair trade between countries, promotes peace. Isolation, embargos and high tariffs cause wars. The Chinese don't want a war with other countries, they just want to sell stuff to them. Opening trade between China and the U.S.A. has promoted peace and understanding between two peoples of different cultures. This trivial matter, over two tiny islands and territorial airspace, can be resolved by diplomats with just a little give and take from both sides. There's a new guy in town in Peking and he's trying to gain the favor of his peeps, nothing more.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      you are being ridiculous. you should get out of your cave NOW!

      November 27, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  12. burt

    BTW.... China is very dependent on the US for not only their economy but for food too. China is walking a thin line here – and they likely thought this was a good idea since Obama is focused on internal matters and Iran. Communist China is not the same China that was on that land 400 years ago. When they killed 50M Chinese to become a new country they lost claim to all those islands.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Focusing on internal matters? This man does not focus on anything other than giving speeches filled with lies and empty promises. He is nothing more than a puppet for Pelosi and Reid. History will not judge him kindly.

      November 26, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  13. Terrible_Ted

    Bomb China back to the stone age.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
    • Ralph_in_FL

      One question: Have you ever been in the military? Just trying to weed out the chicken hawks.

      November 26, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Reply
    • Money talks

      I guess that you played too much video game. If two super powers fight with nuke, it is an end of world, you will be dead too.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      Dude you are one of the so-called "keyboard generals". LOL

      November 27, 2013 at 12:15 am | Reply
    • chinese

      your idiot.who have the ability?

      November 27, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
  14. EddieC

    China should stop buying the US debt.
    Then we'll see how many zones they test.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
    • blog7654321

      The wonderful thing about US currency is that its entire structure can change with a vote from Congress. Not to mention well... it is not time for that yet.

      November 26, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • MoronExterminator

      Imports by The United States of America and Allies (South Korea, European Union, etc) make up about 15% of China's GDP (31% of China's GDP is exports and the U.S. alone is about 17% of that, 16% EU, etc). If China stops buying U.S. debt, we WILL impose sanctions and import less from China and more from the rest of the world, U.S. allies will do the same, hence greatly destabilizing China's economy and forcing them into a possible economic collapse. Blocking oil imports into China is another tactic, as the U.S. is allied with huge oil exporters.

      November 26, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Reply
      • Nick

        yeah good idea, import less from China and import more from other countries, so that when you don't have underwear to put on you can always hang some Ecuadorian bananas there.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:01 am |
    • Nick

      China is already doing this by spending more on their own social welfare. There's no reason for the Chinese to keep lazy American people comfortable.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • a7a55680

      China should REPAY the US, the 850 billion dollars ( + interest 1 trillion dollars )owed to the US people before the communist took over in 1959. A debt does not disappear because a change in government...

      November 28, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  15. darrellaz

    but but... obamacare. liberal. gun rights!

    November 26, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  16. unretired05

    China is like a magician. Watch this hand, here in plain sight, while the other hand empties your pockets.

    November 26, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply
    • Money talks

      Problem was that you had empty pocket, Dude

      November 26, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  17. David

    This is the problem with the United States...we stick our nose where it doesn't belong. We need to stop acting like the UN and just worry about our citizens in our country.

    November 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Reply
    • Taka Kalienov

      The US tried not sticking its nose in Germany during Hitler's rule. The US could've stopped the Nazi's from becoming as powerful as the became later in the war. World War 2 could have been prevented. But the US did not stick their nose in the business of others', we all know how that went.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  18. Like totally you what I am sayin.

    The usual. Fight over who owns land.

    November 26, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  19. chrissy

    Lol @ Hgaddy, bravo! And it had absolutely NOTHING to do with GWB hiding the cost of 2 wars that we had no business being in either! Sheesh, some peoples kids, huh? Lmao.

    November 26, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  20. GI joe

    Your picking a fight with a bigger dog, China. Beware...

    November 26, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  21. kws11

    They've watched us whimper and whine at North Korea, Syria and Iran, and then go home and have the newspapers take those countries off Page 1. They wanted to see if we'll really do anything anywhere. We flew a big, empty airplane over to show our discontent. That's probably all we'll do. Now they know.

    November 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  22. Erik

    if that is their territory, they have the right to defend, China is a big powerful country. The question is if they want to take the next step which is the declation of war. I believe they will.

    November 26, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  23. Big J

    China did great move this time. Who cares this or that. If other countries are looking for trouble, so be it!

    November 26, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  24. Big J

    In this world now, US sets bad example by military bully!

    November 26, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Reply
    • Greg

      I would say china is the bully. Their pilots will be lucky to see through the polluted haze that covers China today. And the Koreans, such fools. Anything to pacify the North, even licking Chinese balls.

      November 26, 2013 at 11:35 pm | Reply
      • Pseudotriton

        the US is flying its war planes in front of China left and right. How is it that China is the bully here? It's one thing if you want to be the toughest guy on the block, but stop with the victim mentality already.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  25. Money talks

    We are so broke, why we care about a dispute thousands miles away and take such a huge risk (nuke war)? craziness.

    November 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  26. Taka Kalienov

    I don't think war is ever the answer, but we can never rule out the possibility of going to war. Trust me, people in China do not want war, it is their government who wants war. I really do think that we can settle this dispute without resorting to violence.

    November 26, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  27. 中国人


    November 26, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  28. 中国人


    November 26, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠


      November 27, 2013 at 1:02 am | Reply
1 2 3 4

Leave a Reply to Peter


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.