More on This Strange Chinese ADIZ: 'Sovereign Is as Sovereign Does'

Which explanation is less worrisome: calculated expansion, or miscalculated blunder?
Overlapping areas of Chinese and Japanese airspace claims, from China Military Review. The legend says that the red line shows the new Chinese ADIZ area, and the black line shows Japan's. The gray is the overlap.

Following yesterday's item on the newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that China has announced in the East China Sea, these links and updates. Also, please see the discussion from our partners at ChinaFile

1) From The Interpreter, the excellent blog of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, an overview by Rory Medcalf of the things to worry about, and not, in the ADIZ announcement. (By the way, you pronounce this A-dizz, with a long A, not spelled out as A-D-I-Z.) Summary of what's worrisome:

  • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
  • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
  • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China...
  • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

The third point on Medcalf's list is one I should have highlighted more clearly yesterday. The borders of the United States are also ringed by ADIZs. But here the ADIZ rules -- mainly, a requirement for a pre-filed flight plan showing who you are and where you're going -- apply only to planes headed to destinations in the United States. They don't affect planes passing through en route to somewhere else, say from Canada to the Caribbean. The new Chinese claim is that even planes merely passing through must comply with their ADIZ requirements.

Also see Andrew Erickson, mentioned previously as a go-to source. If you'd like to see an outright "sky is falling!" reaction to the events, check out Politico.

2) "Sovereign is as sovereign does." From a reader:

Your article about China's ADIZ didn't explicitly recognize a major component of the move. Namely, in international law a major way by which states acquire sovereignty over an area is by actually exercising sovereignty (i.e. administering) over it for a "reasonable" period of time and especially having other states acquiesce to its administration. As one famous court opinion put it:

"The modern international law of the acquisition (or attribution) of territory generally requires that there be: an intentional display of power and authority over the territory, by the exercise of jurisdiction and state functions, on a continuous and peaceful basis."

Even if it has little real practical effect for airliners, by having them identify themselves to China Beijing will be exercising sovereignty over the area and can claim that others are acquiescing to its claims of sovereignty. This is why the U.S. and Japan immediately announced they wouldn't comply with China's demands and the U.S. is openly defying the order already.

Of course Japan has anADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands but at the very least by establishing its own ADIZ (and patrolling the waters below) China is chipping away at Japan's int'l legal claim of sovereignty. This is also why China has made a point of increasing its patrols in the South China Sea and is acquiring the necessary capabilities to constantly patrol the skies over the South China Sea.

3) A Chinese Caribbean. A reader who has worked in politics:

Re: "Why are the Chinese doing this?"

Obviously as you point out it's opaque and we can only speculate to Zhongnanhai's [rough equivalent of the White House] motivations but I think a helpful way to think about is their view/ambition for the East China Sea is that it is/should be a Chinese Caribbean.

Think about the US role there in the late 19th century - the Venezuela thing/ Roosevelt Corollary/ getting the British out).  Which is the tack I would take if I were sitting in Beijing.

4) "A generally more emboldened China." A reader with a lot of experience in the defense world:

I would draw your attention to the Defense Ministry spokesman’s response to the question regarding if China intended to set up ADIZ’s in other areas (e.g., the South China Seas):  “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

I believe that the central question that this new provocation raises is what accounts for it?  Of course, longstanding tension over the Daioyu/Senkaku issue has been rekindled and that offers a proximate explanation; the arrival of Abe into office in Japan, another. 

But what I fear we may be seeing is a generally more emboldened China. There is a lengthening bread crumb trail of recent PRC activity that leads me to this observation (not yet a firm conclusion). 

I’m not referencing the (still) ongoing detentions and boardings that occur with regularity over the Spratleys, the Paracels, and Scarborough Shoals, but to chest-thumping behavior such as the recent Chinese news releases covering the capability of the PLAN’s SSBNs to lay waste to much of the western United States with 20 nuclear weapons. Yes, it did come to us via the Global Times, and yes, I’m well aware that even Beijing is rapidly losing its ability to control much of what comes out of China’s increasingly pluralistic press. That said, Beijing most certainly has proven itself capable of fully controlling what is being uttered in public about its nuclear weapons capabilities.

To be clear, the concern is not on the substance – or even veracity in this latter case of the story – the Xia class SSBNs with their JL-1 SLBMs remain the Chinese maritime equivalent of the Edsel, while the JIN-class (094) SSBNs (with the JL-2 SLBMs) are not yet on operational patrol.  So, again, why the chest thumping?  

Well, here’s to hoping that we aren’t witnessing the emergence of a new hawkish China.

Yes, I agree with that hope. To me, the evidence in recent years has been equivocal, even random -- a lurch forward here, a retreat there. A few days in, the ADIZ expansion appears to have been either a coldly calculated expansionary step, or a wildly miscalculated gamble. Neither is a great option from the rest of the world's perspective, but the blunder option is less worrisome.  

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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