China’s New Air Defense Zone is a Sign of Much Larger Ambitions

The timing of such moves is never coincidental. Beijing knew that Vice President Joseph Biden would be starting a week-long trip to Japan, China and South Korea on December 2. Chinese leaders want to test the resolve of the Obama administration in its second term with its new and perceived weaker national security team.


By William R. Hawkins | December 9, 2013

On November 23, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced the establishment of an East China Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and demanded that all aircraft entering or transiting the zone file flight plans with Beijing. China then deployed fighters to patrol the zone; threatening military action against anyone who did not acknowledge it’s authority in what is otherwise considered international airspace. Other countries have ADIZs, including the United States, but they adhere more closely to recognized territorial boundaries. The Chinese action was widely seen in the larger context of its long campaign to extend its sovereign domain out to what its strategists have called the “first island chain” along the Pacific Rim. That chain runs from Korea to Indonesia and includes Japan, Philippines and Taiwan and also contests the territorial waters of Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter rammed a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane that was flying in international airspace but over what Beijing claims as its “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). The damaged American aircraft landed on Hainan Island, where the Chinese looted its top secret gear while interrogating its crew. Under LOST, countries can develop the resources of the sea 200 miles out from shore but are not allowed to interfere with the transit of others through the area. Beijing has tried to reinterpret the treaty into a claim of complete control of the EEZ. The U.S. has not ratified the LOST as critics have argued that it will inevitably lead to restrictions on freedom of navigation.

There is, however, much more to the Chinese actions than setting new rules of the road. Japan called the Chinese ADIZ, “A profoundly dangerous act that unilaterally changes the status quo in the East China Sea.” Tokyo stated, “The announced measures have no validity whatsoever on Japan….the zone set by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense seemingly describes the airspace over the Senkaku islands, an inherent part of the territory of Japan, as if it were part of China’s territorial airspace. Japan cannot accept at all such a description.” South Korea also asked China to move its ADIZ back from its borders, but Beijing refused.


The financial crisis of 2008 and the sluggish American recovery has given the Chinese communists confidence that they can use their expanded resources more effectively in promoting national power than can Washington. Beijing sees the political strife and economic decline in the U.S. as a window of opportunity to make gains in Asia at the expense of American influence. 


In recent years the territorial disputes China has escalated have occurred mainly in the South China Sea, posing a threat to the smaller countries of Southeast Asia, particularly Philippines and Vietnam. It was reported December 2 that the Chinese ambassador to Manila had declared that Beijing “has a sovereign right to establish a maritime air defense zone over another region as it did in the East China Sea.” However, the ADIZ that has been created is over the East China Sea, challenging the stronger states of Japan and South Korea, a far bolder move.

The timing of such moves is never coincidental. Beijing knew that Vice President Joseph Biden would be starting a week-long trip to Japan, China and South Korea on December 2. Chinese leaders want to test the resolve of the Obama administration in its second term with its  new and perceived weaker national security team. In the first term, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton championed the “pivot to Asia” to bolster friends and allies against a more aggressive China. In 2010, she rallied Southeast Asia to resist Beijing’s claims to own the South China Sea. Yet, President Obama pulled the rug out from under her at the summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in January 2011. To ease tensions, President Obama called on business leaders to remain strong proponents of good U.S.-China relations. No wonder Ms. Clinton decided not to serve in the second term.

It has been the massive transfer of wealth and technology to China by Western investment supported by open trade that has given Beijing the means to aspire to “peer competitor” status with America. The U.S. trade deficit with China, which topped $315 billion last year, has sent over $2 trillion to the Beijing dictatorship over the last decade. The financial crisis of 2008 and the sluggish American recovery has given the Chinese communists confidence that they can use their expanded resources more effectively in promoting national power than can Washington. Beijing sees the political strife and economic decline in the U.S. as a window of opportunity to make gains in Asia at the expense of American influence.

The initial U.S. response to the ADIZ was bold. On November 25, two B-52 strategic bombers flew from Guam into the ADIZ, a 1,500 mile mission. This was significant for two reasons. First, the B-52 is a nuclear capable bomber (though unarmed at the time) that could penetrate into China proper. Second, they flew from Guam, the base that has been expanded as the center of the pivot to Asia. Japan has also sent warplanes into the ADIZ. It has long been U.S. policy that the best way to maintain the principle of freedom of navigation is to exercise it on a regular basis. Use it or lose it.

Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department and Federal Aviation Administration have been ambiguous about whether American commercial airlines should follow Chinese rules in the ADIZ for safety reasons. Japanese airlines have announced they will not file with China.

Beyond this principle, the U.S. must stand by its allies who are menaced by Chinese aggression. The ADIZ is a probe of the U.S.-Japan alliance; will Washington back up Tokyo or will it appease Beijing? Global Times, the English-language daily published by the Chinese Communist Party and often cited as a source of regime thinking, posed the choice explicitly in an editorial on December 5. It claimed that during Biden’s visit to Tokyo, “The dispute between China and Japan wouldn’t have taken up much time” because, “China’s significance to the US and vice versa will not be influenced by Japan’s role in their relations.” The message is that China is more important than Japan because its power is growing. In recognition of this new strength, the U.S. “should tolerate China’s reasonable strategic demands. The US should avoid taking a stand in China’s territorial disputes with its neighboring countries” and “it should not take the initiative in creating conflicts in areas that concern China’s core interests.”  This follows the typical form of blaming those who stand up to aggression for causing conflict when appeasement and surrender would avoid it.

The editorial also had a warning: “Biden is unlikely to show up as an opponent when he is visiting China. But if so, China will not hold back.”  The editorial ends by suggesting that Americans “may reflect if they need to adjust their behavior when a society as undemanding and mild as China cultivates nationalism toward the US.” This attitude was reflected by the PRC Foreign Ministry in response to a question about VP Biden raising the ADIZ issue during his visit. “The US should adopt an objective and just attitude and show respect,” said a ministry spokesman.

The meeting between Biden and PRC President Xi Jinping ran two hours, over twice as long as originally scheduled. Usually a joint statement is issued or a press conference is held after such a meeting, as in Tokyo with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In Beijing, there was no joint statement or media appearance, indicating a tense meeting with no common ground on security issues. Biden reportedly told Xi that the U.S. would not recognize the ADIZ, while Xi defended Chinese claims to dispute territory.

A truly objective U.S. analysis would recognize Chinese expansion as the greatest threat to the peace of Asia and call for taking every step necessary to strengthen its allies and its own capabilities in the region. The ambitions of Communist China must be contained both militarily and economically as were those of the Soviet Union, while the balance of national power still favors the United States.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.