China's air defense zone: What you need to know
December 3rd, 2013
11:19 AM ET

China's air defense zone: What you need to know

GPS speaks with International Crisis Group analyst Yanmei Xie about recent tensions in East Asia, China’s air defense identification zone, and what it means for U.S. ties with Beijing.

What exactly is the air defense identification zone that China has announced?

The air defense identification zone, announced last month, covers a set of islands – called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan – whose sovereignty is hotly disputed by the two countries. Beijing has demanded that from now on, aircraft entering the zone have to report their flight plans, maintain communication and show identification, or “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond.”

What’s behind the move?

Challenged at sea, Beijing could be hoping to assert greater control over the contested islands by unilaterally establishing administrative rights over the airspace above them. It has already been eroding Japan’s administration of the disputed waters by regularly dispatching patrol vessels to the area since the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private owner in September 2012.

The move may also have been driven by the People’s Liberation Army’s desire to expand its power projection. The PLA for years has been arguing that Japan’s air defense identification zone unfairly restricted Chinese military aircraft’s movement and advocated for the establishment of one of its own.

China’s sudden declaration, however, is puzzling in light of its foreign policy goals. Just a month ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping in a high-profile speech, stated that “safeguarding peace and stability in the neighboring region is a major goal” of the country’s diplomacy.

It’s difficult to comprehend how such a vision is served by Beijing’s latest move, which further antagonized Japan and unsettled its allies the U.S. and Australia. It disquieted even Seoul, which had significantly tightened ties with Beijing this year, as China’s new air-defense zone overlaps extensively with South Korea’s and covers an area of ocean claimed by both. Taiwan, which also claims the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, expressed its concern as well. Beijing’s action is also likely to fan anxiety again in Southeast Asia, where memories of Beijing’s assertive push for control of islands in maritime disputes remain fresh.

Does China have reasonable grounds for the move?

Chinese analysts have argued that China has the right to set its protected airspace, just like the U.S. and Japan have done. There is some truth to that argument, but as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, “The timing and the manner of China's announcement are unhelpful.” With regional tensions over island disputes simmering, it’s hard not to see Beijing’s sudden announcement as an unwanted escalation, and it calls into question its commitment to the peaceful use of its growing power.

So what does this mean for Sino-Japanese ties moving forward?

Overnight, this single move may have erased the modest but hard-won efforts to restore the Sino-Japanese relationship. In recent months, exchanges of business delegations and visits by provincial officials, halted since the islands dispute flared, had quietly resumed. Negotiations on a China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement carried on, and China’s Ministry of Commerce has been keen to push it through. Scholars and researchers met for track 2 exchanges to brainstorm further fence-mending steps.

On the diplomatic front, the two sides’ official positions remain wide apart. Beijing wants Tokyo to admit the islands are disputed, while Japan demands China stop sending patrol vessels. Yet throughout this sparring, the foreign ministries have maintained regular contact and Japanese diplomats are routinely briefed by their Chinese counterparts on matters related to North Korea. Former diplomats – China’s Japan hands and members of Japan’s China school – kept up shuttle diplomacy in attempts to break the impasse.

More from GPS: Has China made a strategic error?

Given the recent tensions, these small steps took vision and an understanding that the multi-dimensional bilateral relationship – and each country’s national interest – is much bigger than a cluster of uninhabited islands. They also took some courage, as nationalism in both countries has been on the rise, especially in China where anti-Japan sentiment hovers at a fever pitch.

This new negative turn is likely to continue to be self-reinforcing. Beijing’s muscular move reinforces the worst fears of the Japanese public that China’s intentions are aggressive, right when Tokyo is finalizing new defense guidelines. It will aid Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his bid to boost national defense and loosen constitutional constraints on the Japanese Self-Defense Force. In turn, if it fuels Asia’s arms race, he will buttress claims by Chinese hawks that militarism is making a return in Japan. This means that the bilateral tensions that began with a squabble over the group of rocky islets will head in the direction of becoming a full-blown strategic confrontation with each party viewing the other as a potential enemy. The hostility risks becoming entrenched, institutionalized and much more difficult to isolate and untangle. It’s likely to poison every aspect of the bilateral relationship– as well as regional stability.

How does the U.S. factor into this?

The vicious cycle threatens to pull in the United States. Already, Washington on November 26 sent two long-range bombers through China’s ADIZ around the contested islets, and this is likely to be a strong warning for the Chinese not to continue testing the robustness of the U.S.-Japan alliance. China’s poking of Japan could undermine a signature foreign policy initiative by the Xi administration, namely to establish “a new type of major power relationship” with Washington, which Xi himself said means “no conflict, no confrontation; mutual respect; and win-win cooperation.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in the region. What might we expect?

Biden is expected to voice concerns to Beijing about the destabilizing effect of its recent actions and urge the Chinese leadership to refrain from further escalation and adopt a more cooperative course. He is also likely to advise U.S. allies Japan and South Korea to act with restraint and assure them of Washington’s commitment to the integrity of the alliances. Washington does not take a stance on the sovereignty of the islands, but considers them territory administered by Japan and under the protection of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. Overall, Biden’s trip is intended to demonstrate the staying power of the U.S. in Asia and alleviate doubt on Washington’s commitment to rebalancing to the region.

Is China likely to back down, or will the domestic pressure to stand firm prevent that?

China will not revoke its new air defense identification zone after the high-profile announcement. Doing so would subject Beijing to severe domestic criticism and ridicule. But it has been backpedaling on enforcement. Initially stating that all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities, the Foreign Ministry later said China, “will respond to different cases individually regarding the level of threats,” after the U.S. challenged the newly established zone with flyovers by B-52 bombers.

However, this seeming flexibility may not be a good thing, as it creates confusion and uncertainty and gives the discretion on enforcement to the PLA, which administers the ADIZ, and even to individual pilots who patrol the airspace. Some Chinese commentators have even suggested that enforcement be taken only against Japanese aircraft. When mistrust is deep, intentions unclear, and rules ambiguous, this is a recipe for miscalculations and accidents.

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Topics: Asia • China • Japan • United States

soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. Danny

    Just want to point out that "[the zone] disquieted even Seoul, which had significantly tightened ties with Beijing this year, as China’s new air-defense zone overlaps extensively with South Korea’s and covers an area of ocean claimed by both" is not accurate. It takes no time for one to find out the overlapped area was insignifcant in comparison. Why did Beijing do it? Not an error of course since it rejects Seoul's appearl. Then there is only conspiracy.

    December 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Reply
    • Frank

      ...I was wondering why CNN has not been reporting how BIG this new "zone" is and how many nations it effects – LOL@CNN waiting to see what Administration WANTS them to report

      December 4, 2013 at 6:26 am | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      It would be so laughable to think that a red flag operation might have leaked out about flying used Saudi jets into Chinese buildings to instigate WWIII. AHHHAHAHAHAHA.. that's almost as insane as using 911 to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Don't worry, Washington will have us all completely out of debt and working at good paying manufacturing jobs with excellent free public health care and free post secondary education right across the country by the Ides of March 2014. Did I mention that everyone would also get a new house with virtually nothing down, or did that already happen?

      December 4, 2013 at 7:45 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's quite significant, if you look at the right map!
      China's unilateral establishment of an air defence identification zone demonstrates Xi Jinping's resolve to defend China's territorial integrity, since he became China's top leader and top military chief one year ago. China points out that Ja pan's existing ADIZ in the region extends over China's claimed territory.
      The imposition of the ADIZ is resonant of the PLA's missile blockade of Taiwan in 1996, when former Chinese president Jiang Zemin ordered the unilateral establishment of air and maritime exclusion zones during a series of missile tests to the north and south of Taiwan.

      December 4, 2013 at 10:22 am | Reply
  2. YZhang

    On the question "Does China have reasonable grounds for the move?", the answer should be "Absolutely". Why can't the second largest economy in the world assert its normal right to establish an air defense identification zone when many other smaller nations established such zones covering disputed areas with China?

    December 3, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • Jon

      Because it is doing so over another countries territory. Understand?

      December 3, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
      • greedypg

        Where did you get that idea?,

        December 3, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
      • MMeng

        I doubt anyone understands your unfounded statement. You are even more creative than the US government.

        December 3, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
      • getreal

        It's called 'disputed' area, understand?

        December 4, 2013 at 1:49 am |
      • TTT

        China used the rule "What is belong to me is my. What is your is dispute".

        December 6, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Frank

      Jon is right , China has no right to establish a zone over the shipping ports of three other nations . This move is an act of war

      December 4, 2013 at 6:29 am | Reply
      • alton

        You need to learn how to read a map.

        December 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • Yu Man

        It is right thing to do for the Chinese Government for the security of the country to prevent BAD THING like Pearl Harbor to happen again.

        December 4, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
      • @ Yu Man

        @ Yu Man,

        A) Pearl Harbor was a "surprise" attack on the US Pacific Fleet in an attempt to cripple the US war machine. How does a surprise attack on the US from 70 years ago have anything to do with the Chinese?

        B) If a country is sending its military to conduct a first strike against a foreign country, do you think an imaginary line in the air is going to stop them? "Oh no! How are we supposed to bomb the enemy?!? They put up an imaginary line that we can't cross?!?"

        December 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Joe Blow

      YZhang you are absolutely correct. what China does inside its territory is none of anybody's business but China's.

      December 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply
    • TTT

      China had problems with most every body. They having disputed with all the countries around it. They not follow any rules or laws. They used the jungle rules. Wake up people. Stop buy junk China's goods. When China get stronger you will be sorry for this.

      December 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Reply
      • Peter

        China had get on well with countries around it for thousands of years until America got involved. You should have learn more about history. Your over-generalized conclusion that China had problems with most everybody is so naive.

        December 6, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Guest

      China= Evil

      December 7, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Reply
      • regsphil

        Your correct china is evil more than ever......stop buying scraft made in china.....

        December 9, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  3. ertyerty2342345

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    December 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  4. ertytwetrwerterty2342345

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    QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQpgiorg.blog.comQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQ

    HUMANS SERVERS.
    IST THAT POSIBLE SATELITAL TECHNOLOGY.
    QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQpgiorg.blog.comQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQ

    HUMANS SERVERS.
    IST THAT POSIBLE SATELITAL TECHNOLOGY.
    QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQpgiorg.blog.comQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQ

    HUMANS SERVERS.
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    HUMANS SERVERS.
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    HUMANS SERVERS.
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    QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQpgiorg.blog.comQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQ

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    December 3, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  5. james chen

    Obama's statement in his first inauguration speech set a bad example, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He didn't mention "being right, being moral, being reasonable, being humanistic."

    December 3, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Barack Obama had a good reason for that, james. He and his right-wing henchmen never meant to be any of those things, only to bully like his predecessor George W. Bush did! Moreover, if the J apanese chose to do so, they could quickly rebuild their military forces and the Chinese know it and thus they set up the Air Defense Identification Zone for that reason!

      December 4, 2013 at 9:32 am | Reply
  6. ✠RZ✠

    Fareed and GPS staff,

    Firstly, thanks so much to everyone there for putting forth such great effort. But one thing I do not believe I have yet seen anywhere is an article on the discussion of China's ethnicity and religion as it might relate to the rest of the world. For years now it seems that Islam, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian discussion has dominated the media. And here we have the world's largest population for a single nation being what? 91% Han? Pluralistic? At peace with themselves and the rest of the world? Are the Chinese not also infidels like Christians and Jews? Do the the Chinese just love Hindus?

    December 4, 2013 at 8:23 am | Reply
  7. Mike

    No support for j a p a n e s e.

    December 4, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  8. Tree

    What a biased article by a hypocrite. Journalism and professionalism are totally lost to preoccupied bias, dislike and hatred.

    December 4, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  9. blyboy

    the communist peoples republic of china to declare ADIZ is unacceptable of all country this is miscaculitaion to ignite global war.

    December 4, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  10. No doubt

    What we need to know?! No j.a.p.a.n.e.s.e in there – no doubt about that.

    December 5, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
  11. sonysuong

    Reblogged this on sonysuong and commented:
    Whats the 411 on the dispute for the East China Sea

    December 6, 2013 at 11:02 am | Reply
  12. justice_first

    cannot get posted

    December 6, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Reply
  13. john

    A head such as American great NK does not associate with dying guys, and it is not possible for the disregard

    December 7, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  14. ertyerty2342345

    Of the very dangerous abnormal national global community such as China cannot cope

    December 7, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  15. William Nguyen

    Why did China established its ADIZ unilaterally and demand all aircrafts (not only those en route to China) must obey their rules: China does not intend for security of aircrafts even though it says so. The long term goal of China is to turn this strip of international airspace into their own, a step by step to expand their grip around the world . This is a part of the oil-slick expansion strategy of China that is being applied. If China genuinely cared about risky accidents, it would reach out to other nations for talks before it announced. This action also serves as a pretext for China to grasp more lands, water and airspace around the Earth. Fortunately, China is still far behind USA in economy and military so it has not apply its steel fists to coerce the world. Otherwise, the world won't be anything but hell. Chinese are intelligent, industrial and hardworking so far as demonstrated by the success of Singapore and Taiwan. So it is wrong to assume that only CCP can lift China out of poverty. China led by a group of madmen in CCP will continue its oil-slick expansionism until the world unites to stop it.

    December 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Reply

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