A Chinese government plane flies 120 kilometers north of the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. (Defense Ministry / JIJi Press via AFP)
TAIPEI AND TOKYO — The Pentagon and the US Pacific Command face new problems after Beijing’s announcement of the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea on Nov. 23.
China listed five “Aircraft Identification Rules” that have clearly upset the region. The rules state that “aircraft flying in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone should report the flight plans” to China. The list does not distinguish between commercial and military aircraft, said Peter Dutton, an ADIZ expert and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute, US Naval War College.
“The failure to distinguish is a concern to the US,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reacted to the announcement by calling it a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.” The “unilateral” decision only “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”
China’s decision adds to the stress the US military is experiencing with the evolving corruption scandal involving US Navy officers and Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine, efforts to implement the Asia rebalance during a time of defense budget cuts, and framing its Air-Sea Battle Doctrine without the pretense it’s not really about China.
“The US is being cautious” because of recent problems with the Health Care Act, the agreement with Tehran and the conflict in Syria, said retired US Navy Adm. Walter Doran, former Pacific Fleet Commander. “These are taking all the oxygen in the room. So much for our rebalance to Asia.”
Doran said this is an escalation on China’s part.
“It is certainly a challenge to the Japanese and by treaty obligation to the US. It looks like an attempt to try to force some daylight between the Japanese and the US and therefore nudge the US farther out of the Western Pacific.”
Doran said China’s ADIZ was “very dangerous” because it “increases the possibility of a miscalculation at a lower level that will force governments to react.”
South Korea has also expressed outrage over China’s decision. The ADIZ covers the Socotra Rock (Ieodo or Parangdo), which is under South Korean control, but also claimed by China as the Suyan Rock.
However, no one in the region is more upset than Japan. China’s ADIZ not only overlaps Japan’s ADIZ, but covers the disputed islets known as Diaoyu to China and the Senkakus to Japan. It also covers the Chunxiao gas field under development by China.
According to China’s Ministry of Defense, aircraft that enter the zone will follow the rules of identification or risk “China’s armed forces” adopting “defensive emergency measures to respond.” The penalty of ignoring China’s ADIZ are undefined at this time.
Sources indicate China does not have the radar redundancy and command integration capabilities to control the area or prevent accidents.
“Let China run itself crazy trying to enforce this,” said a US defense industry source based in Asia. “I just can’t see how China will sustain the enforcement. Too much traffic goes through there. If no country recognizes it, [and] don’t respond to China’s IFF [identification friend or foe] interrogation or VID [visual identification], then this new ADIZ is meaningless.”
Some US sources are concerned China’s ambiguity on the rules of engagement might get civilians killed; a reference to the 1983 shoot down of Korean Air Lines 007 by a Soviet Su-15 fighter after straying into Soviet territory.
In response, Chinese sources indicate the establishment of the ADIZ is nothing out of the ordinary and is a response to Japan’s decision to expand its own ADIZ in 2010.
Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said ADIZs are a “common international practice and up to the normal international standards.”
Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director general the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Beijing, said Japan “has its own air defense identification zone, which has already extended to the coast of China.”
Zhu said the other reason is territorial disputes with Japan and the fact that aircraft are “highly concentrated in the zone.” China’s ADIZ would be “conducive to the prevention of accidents.” Zhu hopes the establishment of the ADIZ will also lead to negotiations on a “code of conduct in the air.”
Japanese reaction has been more emotional.
Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, said the decision was “bad and unfortunate.” Chinese President Xi Jinping “was actively involved in the decision-making process” and was “reckless and irresponsible.” If not, then Xi was not firmly in command of his armed forces, he said. “Either way, it is a scary situation.”
Ken Jimbo, senior research fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies/The Tokyo Foundation, said China misjudged if it thought the decision would gain international support. He said the ADIZ announcement was actually Beijing’s attempt to consolidate its territorial claims in the East China Sea.
Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said the decision by China is “in conformity with international law,” but “it is an evident challenge to Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.”
The Chinese have clearly “upped the ante,” said Paul H. B. Godwin, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former CIA analyst.
“In essence, Beijing has raised the ante on its sovereignty claim by demonstrating it has taken responsibility for defending the airspace above the Diaoyu/Senkaku in addition to the Coast Guard vessels that regularly enter Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial waters to demonstrate China’s sovereignty over the islands.”
“The million dollar question is,” asks James Manicom, research fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, “will China try to occupy the islands or try to station some kind of physical presence on the islands?”
US sources insist that if the Chinese military invaded the islands, this would force the US military to assist Japan in expelling them, as required under Article 5 of the US-Japan mutual defense treaty.
“What China announced is far more provocative and dangerous because it interjects a Chinese military function in an area that the United States has pledged to defend from attack under Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty,” said Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS. “This is a slap at the United States now, and not just Japan.”
Green said this is part of a larger Chinese strategy beyond territorial disputes over Senkaku. “This should be viewed as part of a Chinese effort to assert greater denial capacity and eventual pre-eminence over the First Island Chain,” he said.
Green, who served in the US National Security Council from 2001 to 2005, said China’s Central Military Commission in 2008 “promulgated the ‘Near Sea Doctrine’ and is following it to the letter; testing the US, Japan, Philippines and others to see how far they can push.
“Any thought that it is a reaction to Japanese ‘nationalization’ or [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe is fantasy,” Green said. In 1992, China changed the status quo when they included the “entirety of the East and South China seas as their territorial waters.” With the 2008 Near Sea Doctrine, China began “dramatically increasing PLA [People’s Liberation Army] and Maritime Surveillance patrols.”
Protests by the US and Japan annoy Wang Dong, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University.
“I think the Japanese and US protests truly expose their hypocrisy and self-righteousness,” he said. The decision is consistent with international law and norms and China’s ADIZ will help stabilize the region, he said.
Japanese leaders have to come out of their “self-defeating delusion of trying to construct a ‘strategic encirclement’ against China and reciprocate Chinese leaders’ call to shelve disputes and seek a diplomatic solution to the issue.”
Wang said it was Japanese “stubbornness” and a “denial of the existence of any dispute over Diaoyu Island, which is utterly detached from reality and counterproductive” that has “become a stumbling block to the stabilization of the situation in the East China Sea.”
Another frustrated Chinese source is Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University. China’s decision to set up the ADIZ is a response to Japan’s “notorious objection to recognize the existing territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.
“We spent 13 months waiting for Japan’s negotiation over the territorial dispute since September 2012 [when Japan nationalized the islands], but Japan’s hubris prevents it from showing any flexibility,” he said. “Additionally, every time a Chinese surveillance plane scratches Japan’s ADIZ, its jetfighters scramble, and its government officials cry out over China’s plane approaching Diaoyu Island.”
The truth, he said, is that there is no Chinese plan to fly over the islands. “Japan’s smear campaign truly irritates the PLA and Beijing. Now we have to react by declaring our own ADIZ, and keep them shut up.”
The US military has been working hard over the past several years to better military-to-military relations with China. However, Beijing’s announcement throws into question the wisdom of working closer with China as Beijing continues to disregard US advice and concerns.
“The US military needs to better understand the thinking of the PLA and its political influence in decision-making,” said Alexander Huang, senior associate at CSIS and a professor of strategy and wargaming at Tamkang University, Taiwan. “My only criticism of US-China mil-mil is that too much familiarity may not get better results.”
US reaction has been largely negative. Retired USMC Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former US assistant secretary of defense, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, now with Avascent International, said the US “at the very least should break off mil-mil relations with the Chinese.” Gregson said the Chinese are quick to break off military ties with the US whenever “‘we hurt the feelings’ of 1.4 billion Chinese by doing something for Taiwan.” He said there is a real danger if the US does not react.
“I think what will happen is that we will see this as somehow our fault” and “we will lose even more credibility with our allies and friends.”
Gregson said the US does not have a coherent strategic framework for dealing with China. “How many wake up calls do we need” to get serious about a strategy?
Green said the US should at least send a “joint US-Japan patrol in the area to prove the point that coercion will not work.”
Do not expect China to “back down,” Glaser said. There will be more intercepts by China of Japanese and US aircraft in their newly established ADIZ, she said. This could disturb US surveillance flights along China’s periphery, such as the one in 2001 that resulted in a collision between a Chinese J-8 fighter and a US Navy EP-3 ARIES signal intelligence aircraft near Hainan Island. “The risk of accident will undoubtedly increase, especially with fighters flying at Mach 1 by young, inexperienced pilots.”
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow, Heritage Foundation, said the Chinese have enough fighter aircraft now to start harassing and escorting US military aircraft transiting the ADIZ.
“We will now have to start escorting ours, I suspect, or risk harassment,” he said. The only irony is that the US may not have enough fighters, which will “reduce our optempo, making it easier for them to harass us.”
When you couple this with trans-military regional exercises, “we have to face the real likelihood that the entire 4th/5th generation complement of the PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] is potentially available for ADIZ duties, plus PLANAF [People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force] fighters,” Cheng said. “This will be great training for them, if nothing else — overwater navigation, improved air intercept practices, and toughening of surveillance duties.”
The end result for Japan and the US military flying operations in the area will be “a lot of white-knuckle flying and near misses,” Cheng said.
Manicom said China could be changing as a result of the fact that it has begun to conduct naval operations in the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off Guam and Hawaii. “China could be adopting a more global maritime perspective on military activities by ships and aircraft in the EEZ,” he said. “On the other hand, the Chinese may insist on two regimes, one governing Chinese waters and another for everyone else’s waters.”