China's Air-Defense Identification Zone: What Happens Next?

Beijing's escalation of a diplomatic dispute in the East China Sea requires the region's leaders—and Washington—to work out a compromise.
These uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyutai in China, are the center of a major diplomatic row between the two countries. (Reuters)

Chen Weihua, columnist and chief Washington correspondent for China Daily:

The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is not a Chinese invention. The United States, Japan and some 20 other countries declared such zones in their airspace long time ago.

China’s announcement of its first ADIZ in the East China Sea reflects its frustration with Japan’s refusal to admit that there is a dispute over the sovereignty of Diaoyu Islands, or, as the Japanese call them, the Senkaku. And a number of times Japan has used its own declared ADIZ as a pretext to criticize China of intruding into its airspace, which, in China’s view, is disputed.

The declaration of such ADIZ should by no means be seen as a signal that China is willing to shoot down any foreign planes entering the zone without prior reporting. The declaration of the zone gives China a strong legal basis and argument in certain cases, just as Japan did to its advantage in past years.

There is a lot of over-reaction and over-explanation of this as a Chinese provocation. Remember, China has as large a stake in the peace, stability and prosperity in the region as anyone else. Its economy depends on this. Despite the tension, China and Japan’s trade goes on unimpeded. So China would not want military conflict.

I believe leaders in China and Japan are under pressure, trying to appease to nationalistic sentiment in their countries, but I do hope and believe that both have the wisdom to find a compromise, so as to ensure a win-win situation for both.

The U.S. has a role to play here, given that Vice President Biden is going to China, Japan and South Korea next week. But the U.S. should not just try to reassure its allies, maybe more importantly it should win the trust of China if it wants to be a credible broker. You are not qualified to be a judge of a soccer match if one team happens to be made up of your brothers and cousins. The only way to do that is if you are ready to be stricter with that team, and willing to show more yellow or red cards to your own brothers and cousins at times such as when the Japanese government nationalized the islands a year ago.

The U.S. flying B-52 bombers there, if deliberate, only encourages more nationalistic sentiment in China and adds more pressure on the leaders.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic:

Chen Weihua is certainly right to point out that ADIZs have a long history around the world. Also he is right that, that as their name (Air Defense Identification Zone) implies, their purpose is to require aircraft to identify themselves—as opposed to being excluded from an airspace or shot down. But it’s worth noting that most U.S. coverage has made both these points. Indeed, in an earlier post I did at The Atlantic, I put up a map of the many ADIZ areas that surround the United States, and also explained the difference between an ADIZ and a “no-fly zone.”

There are two aspects of the situation that I think deserve more attention on the Chinese side. One is that establishment of this new ADIZ is clearly a change in the status quo. You can argue, as Chen Weihua does, that it’s a justified change—but I hope the Chinese government recognizes that in a very difficult situation, it has taken a step that changes previous understandings and may well provoke reactions from other parties.

The other is that the U.S. interest in this dispute—as I understand it, from a journalistic rather than a governmental perspective—is to contain the disagreement and encourage a diplomatic settlement. It has no interest in being directly involved or “taking sides.” The United States has deep and important relations with both China and Japan. In addition, as all governments in the region realize, it has a treaty obligation to defend Japan as part of the Constitutional arrangement that has kept Japan from fully rebuilding its own military.

All the governments involved have an interest in stepping back from a potential confrontation. I believe that this point is well understood in Washington, and I hope it is in both Tokyo and Beijing.

Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation:

China’s decision to establish an ADIZ over the East China Sea comes barely one year after Xi Jinping became chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the 18th Communist Party Congress. The move is a major example of Xi’s emerging doctrine of “preparing for military struggle” that is the centerpiece for his plans to develop a battle-ready PLA. This means enhancing the military’s war-fighting readiness and accelerate the pace of its weapons modernization.

Xi has been extremely active in his first year in consolidating his leadership of the PLA by visiting military facilities across the country, especially naval and air units. For example, he toured the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in Qingdao in September and submarines and destroyers in Hainan in April.

With Xi’s close attention to military affairs, he is almost certain to have been involved in the decision-making for the establishment of the ADIZ given the wide-ranging international strategic significance of such an action. While the final decision would officially have been taken by the CMC, the PLA Air Force would likely have been the main proponent for the move because it stands to gain the most.

To be able to effectively implement the ADIZ, the air force will argue that it needs extensive resources ranging from long-range surveillance radars to advanced fighter aircraft and airborne early warning aircraft. How aggressively the Chinese authorities will seek to enforce the rules that China has defined for the ADIZ will determine whether the move will heighten the chances for conflict between China, the U.S., and Japan.

The biggest concern is that the PLA’s lack of operational experience, overlapping ADIZs, and unclear rules of engagement could lead to accidents that could easily spiral into dangerous incidents. The only way to address this is for China to talk with Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. as soon as possible to work out their differences. But the initial strongly negative response from these other countries to Beijing’s surprise unilateral move means this may not happen anytime soon.

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ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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