The ADIZ imbroglio: A Chinese View

The ADIZ imbroglio: A Chinese View

adiz2The ADIZ imbroglio: A Chinese View

In a Policy Commentary for the Rising Powers Initiative, RPI author Dr. Ren Xiao, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy at Fudan University in China, offers a view from China on the recent dispute over Beijing’s air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. Though China’s latest move in the on-going islands dispute prompted a range of reactions from Asian powers, Ren Xiao defends the decision as a natural response to recent developments and calls on China and Japan to form a crisis management mechanism to avoid further conflict in region:

On November 23, 2013,China announced its establishment of an East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The ADIZ was clearly under deliberation for some time, and its announcement was carefully timed by Beijing. The announcement was withheld as the new Chinese leadership concentrated on the upcoming Third Plenum and was released ten days after the third Plenum concluded.

The ADIZ announcement was a continuation of the Diaoyu/Senkaku island crisis, a counter-measure that resulted from Japan and China’s failure to establish a mechanism to avoid conflict and manage the island dispute. One puzzle is why the announcement of the ADIZ did not happen last year (2012). Following Japan’s “nationalization” of the islands, China took a series of steps to counter-balance Japan’s act. An announcement of the ADIZ back then would have seemed more natural and logical.

Nevertheless, there is an important follow-up question: why did the announcement seem sudden and abrupt to other nations, triggering strong reactions from several parties, including the United States? Not surprisingly, when meeting with the Chinese leaders in early December, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden expressed concern with China’s establishment of the ADIZ. Chinese leaders responded by restating its position on the ADIZ.

In Defense of China’s Rights to an ADIZ

China has the legal right to establish the ADIZ, given the previous establishment of ADIZs by the United States and Japan. An air defense identification zone is an area outside a country’s territorial airspace that is defined in an attempt to identify whether an approaching aircraft is a threat or not so that they have enough time to react. The ADIZ is not territorial airspace. Over 20 countries have set up their ADIZs, thus China has the legitimate right to do the same.

Japan should not have been surprised by China’s counter-measure move. This move was not a question of “if”, but “when.” The ADIZ is a continuation of China’s reactions to Japan’s “nationalization” of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in September 2012. Infuriated by Japan’s actions, Beijing is determined not to let Japan have unilateral de facto control of the islands. China keeps sending coast guard ships to the adjacent waters to form a situation of joint but separate patrolling. In fact, China is aiming for a new status quo, in which China will reciprocate Japan’s actions.

Japan is still paying a price for its ill-conceived action in September 2012 to “nationalize” the islands, unnecessarily and unwisely provoking China and grossly underestimating China’s reaction, will, and determination. For Beijing, its restraint over the unresolved dispute went unappreciated by Japan, who has took advantage of China’s restraint to consolidate its control of the islands, thereby revealing Japan’s intention to seize the islands.

Moreover, 44 years ago, Japan established its ADIZ, which far exceeds its self-claimed “medium line” in the East China Sea. The closest point of Japan’s ADIZ is only 130 kilometers from China’s coast. On the basis of its own ADIZ, Japan’s military jets often scrambled to follow and monitor Chinese jets flying in international airspace within Japan’s ADIZ. After the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis broke out, Japanese jets scrambled more frequently than before, highlighting tensions in the East China Sea.

With China’s ADIZ established, the two countries are now more “equal.” It is unfair to claim that China should not have set up an ADIZ when both Japan and the United States have established their own ADIZs. The United States was the first country to unilaterally declare an ADIZ; Japan’s ADIZ declaration was also unilateral. Thus, China also has the right to make such a unilateral declaration.

Mishandling the South Korean Reaction

Soon after, it was reported that China’s ADIZ overlapped with a section of the Korean ADIZ that is 20km wide and 115km long, and encompasses Suyan rock (what South Korea calls “Ieodo”). China argues that because Suyan is underwater there is not a territorial dispute between China and South Korea over the rock. This problem can be solved through maritime demarcation. On December 8, 2013, South Korea declared the extension of its ADIZ to now include Suyan rock. China expressed regret at this move. One question is whether China could have handled this ADIZ matter more carefully in order to not involve South Korea.


This imbroglio once again highlights the urgent need for Japan and China to form a crisis management mechanism. Both countries need to sit down and discuss what they should do to avoid conflict in East China Sea.


The author is the director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy at Fudan University, Shanghai, China. He is also a co-author on the Rising Powers Initiative’s Worldviews of Aspiring Powers project.