4 Quick Hypotheses on Why China Suddenly Declared this New Air Defense Zone

by on 2013-11-29 in Duck- 13 Comments


If you haven’t yet seen the zone’s geography, here it is to the left, complete with its overlap with the Korean and Japanese zones. The most important conflict of course is over Senkaku, but Korea watchers will also note that the Ieodo submerged reef, which Korea claims, is also in the zone. Gotta wonder what the Chinese were thinking by giving Korea and Japan common cause over anything. Foolish.

Dan Drezner asked the question I think pretty much everyone is wondering now: did the PRC really expect the US, Japan, and SK to just accept this out of the blue? Obviously they’re not, and it’s hard to find anyone besides the Fox News of Asia Global Times who thinks they should. The following are some quick ideas for where this suddenly came from. Each is more-or-less tied to a level of analysis, but the prose is laymen-style because it was originally written for media

1. Belligerence (anarchy, straight-up realism): the Chinese really are picking a fight with Japan. This is the worst possible reason. They may figure that the Hagel visit to Japan a couple months ago has made Japan into an open challenger to China now. And that is kinda true. America is hedging China, ducking and weaving, trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with it. But Japan is increasingly unabashed that is it balancing China directly as a threat. Abe is increasingly willing to call out China openly. So Asia is becoming a serious bipolar contest, and maybe the Chinese are thinking: ‘to hell with it; Abe’s playing tough; we have too also.’ Certainly my Japanese colleagues in this area increasingly talk about China this way.

2. Blowback (domestic politics, Myths of Empire): the CCP is doing this for domestic legitimacy purposes. CCP ideology since Tiananmen is nationalism, not communism. And Japan is the great foreign enemy in that narrative. The CCP may not want a conflict with Japan, but it’s been telling Chinese youth for 20+ years that Japan is greatly responsible for the ‘100 years of humiliation.’ So now the CCP is stuck; they have to be tough on Japan – even if they don’t want to be – because their citizens demand it. The CCP has created an anti-Japanese frankenstein at home that has to be placated. They have to ride the anti-Japanese tiger their education/propaganda has created, or risk a domestic backlash.

3. Incompetence (bureaucratic politics): the CCP and PLA didn’t really realize just how sharply locals and the US would react. Maybe they’re reading too many of these books claiming that China is about to ‘eclipse’ the US and ‘rule the world’ and all that. Hah! Maybe they’re starting to believe their own hype and got overconfident. Chinese bullying in the SCS has worked out reasonably well so far, so maybe they felt they were on a roll and could do the same in the ECS. But China’s NEA neighbors are much more capable than in SEA.

4. The Transition (leadership, psychology): Xi Jinping wants to make a splash as the new boss. Our knowledge of CCP factions is weak (coastal Shanghai princelings vs hinterland populists is the usual breakdown, with Xi being from the Shanghai clique), but we know Xi was not a shoe-in. There was an internal contest, so Xi might be consolidating power with a flashy foreign crisis. Khrushchev did this sorta thing, and the NK leadership too frequently expresses internal splits by provoking foreign crises.


The problem is that Chinese foreign policy decision-making is so opaque, that we have almost no idea which of these options is most accurate – or if it’s something else entirely. My guess is #2, because the Chinese have always struck me as pretty cautious, even crafty, in managing their rise. It’s true that they’re a lot more aggressive since 2009, but I don’t see them suddenly becoming reckless. The post-Mao oligarchy system that runs China is designed to avoid exactly that. And I always found that factoid that the PRC spends more on internal than external security to be indicative that CCP is, in fact, very insecure at the top. It’s gotta have an ideology with foreign enemies, otherwise the Chinese people might see the real enemy: the CCP’s corruption, rejection of democracy, and unwillingness to admit the horrors of Maoism.

I think this will alienate not just Japan, but South Korea too, and it makes me wonder, per Drezner, what is going on inside Beijing. My sense has always been that the PLA and CCP are much smarter than the Kremlin of Soviet days ever was. One of Sun Tzu’s most quoted lines is, "When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of his way." So if you’re China, just stay out of the way while SK and Japan tear at each other. But now, China has given cause for Japan, SK and the US to come together. Very foolish. And for what? Are the Chinese really go to force down or even shoot down (!) civilian airliners in the zone? A KAL-007 resolution – a genuine risk now that Japanese airlines are not pre-calling the PRC after all – would be madness. It would vindicate Japanese paranoia immediately and alienate everyone in Asia. And China really needs local friends to avoid isolation by a coalition of the US, Japan, and India.

I would imagine then that the US will play up this Chinese move to Japan and SK to suggest what US analysts have been saying for a long time – that Japan and Korea have a lot more in common than they admit and face much greater external threats than each other. Koreans take Ieodo pretty serious. They built a research facility on top of it and even made a monster movie about it. I don’t think China gets that, as throwing Ieodo and Senkaku in the zone together gave Japan and South Korea common cause overnight. And in fact, the Korean response on Ieodo was swift and entirely predictable. The Chinese need to hire some Korea experts, I think.

As best I can tell from the mil-tech lit on this, China is still not capable of winning an air and/or maritime conflict in East Asia. Indeed, even without the US, my sense is still that Japan would win a major skirmish around Senkaku. China is still mostly a land-power, while Japan has focused on air and sea power since WWII. Also, if China forces Japan’s hand, it will burn bridges throughout Asia and provoke an encircling coalition, possibly running from India all the way around up to Japan. I don’t think Beijing is that foolish or the PLA that reckless. Hence my guess, that this air-zone was declared, not to provoke a conflict with Japan, but to bolster the nationalist credentials of the CCP at home.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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  • HorstMohammed

    I agree with much of what was said above, especially regarding the most likely explanation for this behavior. What I don’t get is the part about “forcing or shooting down civilian airliners”, which seems to mirror claims in the media that the US and Japan successfully challenged China’s bluff by flying planes through it without a reaction. This is not a no-fly zone, and neither has China claimed it as part of its national airspace. Nobody in Beijing is talking about interfering with anyone’s flight paths, be they civil or military planes. All they’ve said is that they’ll require identification in the form of active transponders, which every aircraft should be able to provide by default. When the B-52s passed through, they were monitored (as they most likely would’ve been anyway, no matter if this is now an “identification zone” or not) and not harassed in any way. So far, this is simply a non-event as far as actual changes in the way things run are concerned. Sure, they may be problems down the road if, say, an unidentified aircraft passes through the space and Chinese and Japanese airforces come in close contact while both trying to find out what’s going on – so far, there does not seem to be a mechanism to communicate and exchange information between the military organs in charge of the zone. But it’s still not something that is particularly likely to result in an armed confrontation, let alone escalate into full-scale conflict.

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Yes, it is not an NFZ. I only choose that tag, because it was the closest resemblance to the issue.
    While it is hard to imagine that China would force down a foreign plane in the zone, then why otherwise declare the zone? China said flights that did not notify would face ‘emergency defense measures.’
    China has painted itself into a corner. Unless these punish violators, the zone was a bluff that got called.

  • Iain Johnston


    In my simplistic and entirely speculative account, the issue divides into two parts: 1) flight plans/identification requirements for entering China’s ADIZ, and 2) consequences for violating ADIZ rules

    1. there appears to be variation among East Asia states with ADIZs about whether the submission of flight plans are only for flights heading toward airspace or include flights transiting the ADIZ. Japan and Thailand’s ADIZ rules appear to be the former type. Taiwan, Philippines, and Myanmar’s rules appear to be the latter type. China appears to have adopted the latter, tougher of the two standards.

    2. For most countries with ADIZs, the consequences for violating their regulations could be an intercept, which could then lead to anything from getting close to the aircraft and identifying it, to escorting it through the ADIZ, to forcing it to change direction, to forcing it to land, to shooting it down. In this regard China’s term “emergency defensive measures” was a bad choice of language, but subsequently the Foreign Ministry and the PLA have defined the response more flexibly, and some Chinese commentators have hinted that the toughest responses are for flights heading into China’s airspace. China could help its case by clarifying “emergency defensive measures” along the lines the FAA or the Australians use, for instance (e.g. with very detailed instructions for interceptor and intercept, and applied only to flights heading toward airspace).

    As a pilot I contacted noted, given the automaticity of commercial airline flight planning and constant communications with air traffic control in the region, there is almost no chance the Chinese can’t identify a civilian commerical aircraft entering the ADIZ. There is no need to scramble to intercept and identify, even if it didn’t file flight plans with the PRC. So the shootdown of commercial aircraft scenario is not a credible one.

    The risk is that China decides to implement “emergency defensive measures” against Japanese aircraft heading toward the Senkaky/Diaoyu islands. Even if China adopts the narrower standard (only requiring ID from aircraft heading toward national airspace) it would still mean intercepting Japanese aircraft heading toward these islands since China claims these are Chinese territory.

    But all of this is not really about China’s air defense.This is mainly a question of challenging Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. There is an element of mimicry – Japan has an ADIZ, so we can to. Japan’s ADIZ comes within 130 kms of our territory, so ours will come within 130 kms of Japanese territory. The Chinese appear to be engaged in establishing a symmetry in Chinese and Japanese administrative presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu.

    The dangers here are (at least) two fold. One is more short-term, namely, using the ADIZ rules to challenge Japanese presence flights over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. Unless Japan changes its pattern of patrols (unlikely) this increases the probability of a deliberate intercept or an accident. The second danger is more long term, namely, that as one thinks about what other things China could do to establish symmetry with Japan’s administrative control over Senkaku/Diaoyu, one begins to think about symbolic moves like landing government officials to set up, say, a lighthouse or navigation aids, or something like that. In that scenario, both sides have incentives to prevent the other from landing government officials, in which case the probability of an armed clash increases.

    Your explanations all seem plausible (I have my doubts, though, about this as a
    response to Chinese nationalism; since when do authoritarian leaders need to be
    so sensitive to popular emotions, especially on an issue where military actions
    will, unless deliberately publicized, be out of view of the public). But I think in this instance the main driver is to increasingly limit Japanese administrative control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu.

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Hi, Thanks for all this. I was kinda hoping you might respond :) I was curious for your take.

    1. The reason I mentioned the KAL 007 scenario was because of the early language of the PRC on this and the Japanese airlines’ immediate compliance. My sense of the Japanese debate, culled, to be sure, from friends there and media, is that Japanese airlines were worried about this possibility, which is why they immediately agreed to comply – before they got arm-twisted by the Abe administration. But yes, I concur that this was always wildly unlikely. I guess the larger point I was trying to make is that China has painted itself into a corner by promising some kind of response if the zone were violated, and now it is being violated, by both the US and Japan. That suggests either backing down (as they appear to be doing), or upping the ante, i.e. militarily challenging overflight.

    2. As for the cause, you would know better than me. Is it really just about S/Diaoyu? This seems like a pretty risky move – given that it’s being interpreted as a major challenge to the US (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/569ac0a8-5764-11e3-b615-00144feabdc0.html?ftcamp=crm/email/20131129/nbe/Comment/product&siteedition=intl) – over something so minor. Perhaps the CCP didn’t realize it would be read in such large terms…

  • Iain Johnston

    I am guessing that commercial reasons was the main motive for the rush by commercial airlines to comply with filing flight plan requirements (reassure prospective passengers that flights through the ADIZ are safe; avoid financial retaliation from the PRC for non-compliance).

    As for painting itself into a corner, if you read the ADIZ rules for other countries, the language is usually qualified — violation of the rules might lead to an interception, but it doesn’t have to. It is hard to believe that the Chinese expected US and Japanese military aircraft to comply. The roll out of the policy has been clumsy. This is the PLA’s baby. The initial statement explicitly states the PLA alone is responsible for interpreting the rules. The PLA, apparently, doesn’t do diplomacy well. The plethora of PLA commentary after the announcement was all over the place about how to interpret the rules. It is quite possible that the PLA under-estimated the diplomatic reaction. It appears that Foreign Ministry (in a statement on the 27th) opened the door for a more flexible interpretation of the rules, which the PLA (in a statement on the 28th) then picked up.

    China could reduce some of the negative reaction if it adopted the narrower standard for requiring flight plans (only when aircraft are heading for national airspace, which is the US standard as well), but this would require reinterpreting the original rules. It could also help its case if it published explicit rules for interception (as the US and Australia do for instance). And it could help its case if it wasn’t so obvious that the scope of the ADIZ is in part a petty, somewhat tit-for-tat, matching of the Japanese ADIZ.

    I agree this was a big decision, which is more reason to doubt that it was pushed by domestic public opinion. The top leadership would prefer to constrain the effects of public opinion on foreign policy than be constrained by public opinion. But the S/D is not a minor issue for China (nor is it for Japan, otherwise why not just recognize the existence of a dispute as the Chinese are demanding Japan do). It is about territory and sovereignty.

  • Iain Johnston

    Forgot to mention a couple of other benefits for the PRC from the ADIZ. First, it can now count up all the Japanese incursions into the PRC ADIZ and publish these figures; this is to counter the Japan’s published figures about Chinese incursions into its ADIZ. So there is a PR symmetry here. Second, given the size of the ADIZ the PLA will likely need more aircraft and equipment to respond to incursions. So this is good for budgets. But, as I noted, my hunch is that the main driver is to establish a certain symmetry with Japan in the exercise of administrative control over the area, particularly over the S/D islands. This is consistent with all the prior moves to symbolically weaken Japan’s administrative control, and thus undermine Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the islands.

  • Florian Schneider

    Thanks Robert for this very insightful review of the issue, and also to Iain for that note on the PRC mimicking long-standing Japanese policy in the region. I think you are entirely right, Iain, that this is a way for the leadership in China to balance what they see as a situation highly skewed in Japan’s favour. In fact, I would think that most Chinese politicians do not see the new ADIZ as a challenge to the status quo, but as a means to finally re-establishing the status quo, which they would likely see as having long been upset by Japan (…and the US when it handed administrative rights to Japan rather than China or Taiwan in the early 1970s).

    That said, I would not dismiss the element of nationalism too quickly. In fact, I would say Robert’s two explanations above (“blowback” and “transition”) very much fit together, and are an important part of the explanation. After all, Xi’s administration had a rocky transition to manage, amidst many domestic challenges (environmental pollution, social inequality, possible economic downturn, corruption among cadres, etc.). It seems like a highly beneficial move for Xi to be tough on territorial conflicts: he gets to bolster his position with the PLA and at the same time can sell himself as a strong leader to a generation of people who have gone through patriotic education and have been disgruntled at the leadership’s impotence over the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue for years.

    So in my view: declaring the ADIZ may well be an entirely reasonable move on the side of the PRC administration that keep the Japanese government on its toes while catering to various different interests at home. A “win-win”… well, unless of course you are one of those Chinese diplomats who was hoping to strengthen Chinese soft power, in which case you’re probably pulling out your hair in frustration right about now.

  • Yohanes Sulaiman


    I may write a longer post about this later in my blog, but for now, I propose a fifth explanation: putting up a stake.

    Similar to the nine-dash line in South China Sea, China is basically staking a claim over a territory that it may enforce way later in the future, when the balance of power further shifts to its advantage. China has made a claim over the nine-dash line area for decades, before it finally “decided” to enforce its claims to both Vietnam and the Philippines’ chagrin in the past couple of years.

    The flight plans basically should be seen as a way to “normalize” this claim, and once it becomes a custom that everyone must submit a flight plan over this territory, China could make a strong claim that its claims are OK-ed by the international community, and thus bringing in a new status-quo.

  • beidaren

    HongKong is part of china. So all Japanese commercial flights into HongKong through the new Chinese ADIZ need to comply with the new rule per Japan’s own ADIZ rule?

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    Yeah, I think that might be right. One read is to say that the ADIZ is perfect way to stake a claim without staking a claim. China has backed off to where there’s no threat of their previously declared ‘emergency measures.’ They’re not going to start shooting down airliners or any of the scary stuff floating around the Internet. Instead, all they want is a call ahead of time. And who can argue with that? Seems harmless, right? Even the USG is now advising US airlines to comply and notify China. But in 20 years, China will then be able to come back and say, ‘oh, this has been the status quo now for 20 years, and it obviously bolsters our sphere of influence in the ECS.’ The more I think about this, this cleverer it might actually be…

  • http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/ Robert Kelly

    I asked one of my Chinese grad students to surf around Chinese social media for a bit to get a vibe on this. Like Iain, she is skeptical of my first, ‘myths of empire’ explanatory guess. Here is what she wrote to me today:

    “Dr, Kelly,
    I tried to search some comments from Chinese websites. Most of the opinions are
    saying that setting up ADIZ is for national security rather than picking a
    fight with Japan. Some of the comments
    as follow.

    1、 A response to Abe’s tough stance on China.

    Recently, Abe took a series of actions
    militarily, economically, politically against China. China is not able to intervene
    in the Japan-us cooperation or Japan’s economic or political cooperation with
    the surrounding countries. So this action can be a counter blast to Abe’s
    actions. As you’ve mentioned, this is a way to satisfy the citizen’s by showing
    the government’s competence.

    2、 To grab the shield of justice.

    In the past, China was discredited by
    Japan for more than once for violations of their airspace. With its own ADIZ, china can grab the shield of justice,
    to defend themselves.

    3、 To change the status quo which is extremely unfair to China

    America was the first one to have ADIZ
    in 1950. Then, Japan set up its ADIZ in 1969, with 3/4 of the East China Sea in
    it. The current situation leaded by japan and U.S is quite unfair to China.

    4、A changing train of thought on solving surrounding disputes.

    China’s peaceful rise
    strategy did not accept expected peaceful response and enough trust from
    international community. So maybe this is turning point of china’s strategy of
    solving disputes with neighbors: from dormancy to striving for.

    5、 The timing

    As china grows economically and
    militarily, as a way to confront the air supremacy of Japan and U.S, changing
    the unfair situation will happen sooner or later. it is just a matter of the
    timing. Now with the end of the Third Plenary Session, the growing military
    defense system, the crucial time of social reform which requires popular
    supports. This is the timing.

    And one Chinese military commentator said that it is time for Japan and U.S to
    accept the growing China declaring for just demands. They may find it difficult
    to accept and face the changes all of a sudden, but they have to and will get
    used to them sooner or later.

    It seems to me that, according to the perspective of the domestic commentators,
    this is more about defense rather than provocation. And I am
    still not sure if this is about CCP fawning on the citizens. Because I am
    not sure if most of the citizens or the young generation will really understand
    the meaning or really care about setting up the ADIZ. Nor will this draw
    the public’s attention from the domestic issues like corruption, social
    justice, and legal construction or the yong generation’s attention for finding
    jobs or improving living .

    Nowadays, we can compeletly tell the public’s core concern by
    checking the top topics on microblog( Chinse twitter). The Third
    Plenary Session was on the list, peopel last month
    talked intensly about the new reform policies which may change their
    lives a lot.But i checked the topics these days, setting up the ADIZ is not on
    the hot topic list at all. So I prefer it is this is just a normal step
    forward for Chinese military strategy and foreign policy. If the promoting
    nationlism is what the government want, I just have to say it didn’t work
    that well as the government expected. Haha.”

  • Scott Monje

    Could this reflect a political decision among Chinese leadership factions that seeks to “balance” a new wave of economic reform with a renewed crackdown on internal dissent and a firmer stance toward Japan?

  • G

    As some commenters have pointed out, the specificities of the ADIZ in and of itself remain more than vague. It is far from a claim on sovereign airspace, or even an administrative flight information region. While commercial flights will likely be a non-issue, military flights are employed with a variety of coordinations with national civil aviation entities. An friendly “interception” can quickly degrade as we saw in the incident with the P-3 in China in 2002.

    If you want to look at a very interesting study of contested airspace, take a look at how things have played out over the Aegean Sea. In this case there is no unilateral overlaying of ADIZs, but instead conflicting interpretations of sovereign airspace and then conflicts in how those interpretations intersect with administratively controlled Flight Information Regions (FIR).