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

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