China’s ADIZ: A Political Skirmish

Posted on December 3, 2013 by

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China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone has prompted much debate around American strategy in the region, and how long-term interests must be served in light of the ambitions of this rising power. This has detracted somewhat from the edict itself—it’s dismissed as a fulfilment of our preconceptions of China (an expansionist power), and as just another part of a long-time trend. While valid to an extent, analysis of the ADIZ itself should not be left solely to prosaic reporters of run-of-the-mill news organisations.

The ADIZ, fundamentally, was a political skirmish, a prod at the status quo to see how it would react. It intentionally engulfed the Japanese-administrated Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, knowing full well it would not further the acceptance of their claim to them. The choice of an ADIZ is also interesting, for they were first deployed by America as a countermeasure to further Japanese airborne attacks. As spokesman Yang Yujun responds in interview, though their ADIZ goes as far as 130 kilometres from Japanese territory, Japan themselves have operated an ADIZ since 1969 that too, is as near as 130 kilometres from Chinese territory; every detail of this arrangement is shrouded in precedents so as to detract from its fundamentally unilateral attempt to unhinge the status quo. Importantly, it was not an air exclusion zone, for that would demand reaction to any breach, arbitrary or not, or risk a dent in Chinese credibility. Such an arbitrary breach followed shortly after its declaration with the flight of two American B52 bombers through this airspace without prior warning. Indicative of the alliance system in the East China Sea, they were shortly followed by aircraft of Japan and South Korea.

Both the act and the response were provocations, and like all provocations potentially dangerous, but what is important here are the relative positions and ambitions of China and America in the region. China, like all powers with such capabilities, seeks hegemony (and thus security) in its region, not presently afforded it by its encirclement by U.S.-friendly states. America, conversely, seeks a two-pronged strategy: to maintain the status quo for the sake of security, but not to alienate China (indeed, to further enmesh it in the global economy if possible) for the economic damage any split with China could wreak.

It’s a difficult line to take, but any strategy negligent to either prong would soon fall short. While it may seem that American credibility too, was on the line, as Stephen Walt points out, U.S. credibility is more a problem for America’s allies than for itself. Nobody doubts a direct attack on American interests would solicit a direct response; what China was testing was America’s relationship with Japan. If China is set on breaking its encirclement it needs to start somewhere, and island disputes have been a time-honoured favourite.

The efficacy of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ aside, a defensive strategy such as this—its visibility dependent on Chinese initiatives—can lead to questions of whether any strategy exists at all; military presence alone does not count. However, no such textbook exists, asides from a propensity to meet provocation with limited (the B52s were unarmed) and transparent escalation. The astute use of such action has declared null China’s ADIZ, and though the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue is far from resolved, the status quo remains much as it was before.

America will not allow China to make unilateral changes in its favour, and though tensions between China and Japan are as fraught as ever, so long as America agrees to hold the reigns, the likelihood of serious confrontation remains slim.

CC Image Courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Flickr

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