FPI Bulletin: U.S. & Japan Challenge China’s Air Defense Zone Claim

November 27, 2013

In a controversial move, China recently announced that it would restrict air operations in the East China Sea, including over Japanese-controlled territory.  While this development is a notable escalation in the standoff between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu Dao by China), it is consistent with Beijing’s ongoing efforts to undermine both Japan’s position and the perceived credibility of the U.S.-Japanese alliance in those regional waters.

China’s Ministry of National Defense sparked the latest dispute with its November 23rd announcement of a Chinese-controlled Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) encompassing the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by the government of Japan.  The Ministry explained that all aircraft operating within the zone would be required to provide identifying information and “follow the instructions” of Chinese authorities, adding that “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate.”

China’s assertion of an ADIZ drew an immediate and sharp response from Tokyo and Washington.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the proclaimed zone “dangerous,” adding that it would have “no validity whatsoever on Japan.”  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted that the United States views China’s move “as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” that “increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”  On Tuesday, the United States defied China’s posturing, dispatching a pair of B-52 bombers on a flight over the Senkaku Islands without notifying the Chinese government or otherwise acknowledging any obligations under the proclaimed zone.

The tone of the Japanese and U.S. response is explained by both a practical objection to Beijing’s promulgation of its ADIZ, and the particular circumstances of the clash over the Senkaku Islands.

First, China’s Ministry of National Defense says it plans to emulate existing ADIZs, but has articulated plans to exercise control of the zone that are more draconian than normal practice.  By claiming the authority to issue instructions to any aircraft within its ADIZ, China would exceed the normal practice of only requiring that aircraft intending to enter a state’s domestic airspace comply with its ADIZ procedures, a point made by Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement on the issue.  This distinction means that rather than defusing confrontations, Beijing’s proclaimed ADIZ risks creating them in a manner that could be reminiscent of the Hainan Island crisis of April 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with the U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft.

Second, and more importantly, China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone is not intended to follow any international legal precedent so much as to establish one by seeking to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands.  For the past two years, Beijing appears to have targeted a perceived vulnerability in how the United States and Japan define Washington’s obligations under the U.S.-Japanese alliance.  U.S. officials have long insisted that while Washington takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to the islands because they are under Japanese administration.  The government of China, in turn, seems to view this position as a loophole that it can exploit by weakening Japan’s effective administration of the islands.  Its efforts to do so have included:

  • In September 2012, Beijing issued a statement demarcating its maritime claims to the Senkaku Islands, which it submitted to the United Nations the same month.  The government of Japan has protested the China’s claims, which the U.S. Defense Department has described as “improperly drawn,” but Beijing has since issued a white paper further elaborating its position that China has already “maintained routine presence and exercised jurisdiction in the waters of Diaoyu Dao” and will continue to do so.
  • In 2012 and 2013, China has taken direct measures to exercise jurisdiction in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands by sending vessels from the Chinese Coast Guard into Japanese territorial waters around the islands.  Although such incursions occurred only twice before 2012, there were 22 such instances last year and there have been more than 50 so far in 2013.
  • Since August 2013, the Chinese Coast Guard has begun boarding and inspecting Chinese fishing vessels within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, establishing a stronger basis for its claim to administer Chinese laws in the area, despite the objections of Tokyo.
  • The Chinese Armed Forces have also undertaken a wide array of military operations in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, to include both manned and unmanned aircraft approaches toward Japanese airspace, as well as an incident earlier this year in which a People’s Liberation Army Navy warship locked its fire control radar onto a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force vessel.

In light of this pattern, Beijing’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone should not be viewed as a single provocative act, but the latest step in an ongoing effort to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, as well as the credibility of the United States in the region.

As Sugio Takahashi has argued, the Senkaku Islands will be viewed throughout the region as critical test of U.S. credibility in the face of Beijing’s expansionist agenda throughout the East China Sea and South China Sea.  There is no other case where the U.S. commitment is so ironclad, where we have so capable an ally, and where U.S. military assets are so readily available.

The Obama administration deserves credit for its efforts to show Beijing that there is no daylight between the United States and Japan when it comes to our treaty obligations with regard to the Senkaku Islands.  In January 2013, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned that the United States will “oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the Senkaku Islands, a position that Secretary Kerry reiterated upon his first visit to the region in April.  The strong statement by Secretaries Kerry and Hagel in response to China’s ADIZ announcement, as well as the B-52 overflight this week, were also useful steps in this regard.

Fortunately, the United States and Japan are well poised to take additional steps to strengthen the alliance.  Prime Minister Abe is committed to increasing Tokyo’s relatively modest defense budget and shifting resources to secure Japan’s southwest islands.  In addition, the two allies have recently agreed to review the bilateral guidelines for security cooperation in response to various contingencies, providing an opportunity to look hard at what steps are required to stabilize the East China Sea.  Seizing these opportunities to strengthen our alliance with Japan will be an essential next step in moderating Beijing’s ambitions toward its neighbors.

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