Why’s the U.S. Flying Bombers Over the East China Sea?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Chen Weihua:

The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is not a Chinese invention. The United States, Japan and some 20 other countries declared such zones in their airspace long time ago.

China’s announcement of its first ADIZ in the East China Sea reflects its frustration with Japan’s refusal to admit that there is a dispute over the sovereignty of Diaoyu Islands, or, as the Japanese call them, the Senkaku. And a number of times Japan has used its own declared ADIZ as a pretext to criticize China of intruding into its airspace, which, in China’s view is disputed airspace.

The declaration of such ADIZ should by no means be seen as a signal that China is willing to shoot down any foreign planes entering the zone without prior reporting. The declaration of the zone gives China a strong legal basis and argument in certain cases, just as Japan did to its advantage in past years.

There is a lot of over-reaction and over-explanation of this as a Chinese provocation. Remember, China has as large a stake in the peace, stability and prosperity in the region as anyone else. Its economy depends on this. Despite the tension, China and Japan’s trade goes on unimpeded. So China would not want military conflict.

It’s just like when President Obama says that all options are on the table, we should not jump into a conclusion that “Obama is ready to nuke North Korea or Iran or Syria...” Yet I see a lot of such thinking here.

I believe leaders in China and Japan are under pressure, trying to appease to nationalistic sentiment in their countries, but I do hope and believe that both have the wisdom to find a compromise in the situation, so as to ensure a win-win situation for both.

The U.S. has a role to play here, given that Vice President Biden is going to China, Japan and South Korea next week. But the U.S. should not just try to reassure its allies, maybe more importantly it should win the trust of China if it wants to be a credible broker. You are not qualified to be a judge of a soccer match if one team happens to be made up of your brothers and cousins. The only way to do that is if you are ready to be stricter with that team, and willing to show more yellow or red cards to your own brothers and cousins at times such as when the Japanese government nationalized the  islands a year ago.

The U.S. flying B-52 bombers there, if deliberate, only encourages more nationalistic sentiment in China and adds more pressure on the leaders.


Chen Weihua is certainly right to point out that ADIZs have a long history around the world. Also he is right that, that as their name (Air Defense Identification Zone) implies, their purpose is to require aircraft to identify themselves—as opposed to being excluded from an airspace or shot down. But it’s worth noting that most U.S. coverage has made both these points. Indeed, in an earlier post I did at The Atlantic’s website, I put up a map of the many ADIZ areas that surround the United States, and also explained the difference between an ADIZ and a "no-fly zone."

There are two aspects of the situation that I think deserve more attention on the Chinese side. One is that establishment of this new ADIZ is clearly a change in the status quo. You can argue, as Chen Weihua does, that it’s a justified change—but I hope the Chinese government recognizes that in a very difficult situation, it has taken a step that changes previous understandings and may well provoke reactions from other parties.

The other is that the U.S. interest in this dispute—as I understand it, from a journalistic rather than a governmental perspective—is to contain the disagreement and encourage a diplomatic settlement. It has no interest in being directly involved or “taking sides.” The United States has deep and important relations with both China and Japan. In addition, as all governments in the region realize, it has a treaty obligation to defend Japan as part of the Constitutional arrangement that has kept Japan from fully rebuilding its own military.

All the governments involved have an interest in stepping back from a potential confrontation. I believe that this point is well understood in Washington, and I hope it is in both Tokyo and Beijing.

China’s decision to establish an ADIZ over the East China Sea comes barely one year after Xi Jinping became chairman of the Central Military Commission (C.M.C.) at the 18th Communist Party Congress. The move is a major example of Xi’s emerging doctrine of “preparing for military struggle” that is the centerpiece for his plans to develop a battle-ready P.L.A.. This means enhancing the military’s war-fighting readiness and accelerate the pace of its weapons modernization.

Xi has been extremely active in his first year in consolidating his leadership of the P.L.A. by visiting military facilities across the country, especially naval and air units. For example, he toured the P.L.A. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in Qingdao in September and submarines and destroyers in Hainan in April.
With Xi’s close attention to military affairs, he is almost certain to have been involved in the decision-making for the establishment of the ADIZ given the wide-ranging international strategic significance of such an action. While the final decision would officially have been taken by the C.M.C., the P.L.A. Air Force would likely have been the main proponent for the move because it stands to gain the most.

To be able to effectively implement the ADIZ, the air force will argue that it needs extensive resources ranging from long-range surveillance radars to advanced fighter aircraft and airborne early warning aircraft. How aggressively the Chinese authorities will seek to enforce the rules that China has defined for the ADIZ will determine whether the move will heighten the chances for conflict between China, the U.S., and Japan.

The biggest concern is that the PLA’s lack of operational experience, overlapping ADIZs, and unclear rules of engagement could lead to accidents that could easily spiral into dangerous incidents. The only way to address this is for China to talk with Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. as soon as possible to work out their differences. But the initial strongly negative response from these other countries to Beijing’s surprise unilateral move means this may not happen anytime soon.

Tai Ming Cheung put his finger on a key issue – how the newly announced ADIZ will further empower actors within China to push for bolder action in the contested territories in the East China Sea.

The ADIZ announcement shows that China wants to enshrine in law and regulation the practice of “overlapping administration” which it has managed to establish since Japan’s purchase announcement in September 2012. It wants to “normalize” this de facto situation by bringing its legal and institutional framework up to what it believes is a more equal position with Japan.  China always bristled under Japan’s ADIZ, especially when—according to Chinese analysts—Japan allegedly extended it earlier this year.

But in so doing, Beijing dangerously narrows its options.  Such announcements directly empower Chinese military and civilian law enforcement actors in the disputed areas and embolden nationalists and netizens to hold the government accountable to implement them in practice. The last announcement of this type was on 10 September 2012 when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set baselines to formally demarcate China territorial waters in the area. In Beijing's eyes, this move legally placed the disputed islands under Chinese administration in a direct challenge to Japan's administration of the islands. Such an unprecedented move to formalize its claim obliged China under its own laws—and in the court of domestic public opinion—to assert jurisdiction over the waters surrounding the islands and empowered Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies to assert China's sovereignty around the islands.  Almost immediately, China increased the presence of Maritime Ocean Surveillance vessels in disputed waters on what the Foreign Ministry claimed was a "rights defense law enforcement action." Sure enough, Internet users tracked Chinese law enforcement vessels via satellite photos, mocking and criticizing the government when they stopped short of disputed waters. (One netizen summed it up: Beijing “can’t just verbally draw [the territorial sea baselines], then neglect them. That’s humiliating”.) They held Beijing to statements that it may have made during a time of high public pressure, not allowing for the option of selective enactment. We can imagine a similar dynamic taking place now with the ADIZ. Certainly heated discussions have already taken place in Beijing after the US B-52 flight.  Beijing is again setting itself up to be criticized internally as too weak in a highly-charged atmosphere. This emboldens belligerent voices and constricts the space for diplomacy.

Given this situation, there must be serious efforts made on both sides to deal with the potential risks, which as Tai Ming pointed out, are aggravated by the PLA’s lack of operational experience, overlapping ADIZs, and unclear rules of engagement, which could lead to accidents. I would add to that list the lack of ‘hotlines’ or even effective channels of communication in times of crisis and the evaporation of back-channel diplomacy between Tokyo and Beijing.  

The relative weakness of China’s Foreign Ministry also complicates bilateral relations and prevents effective crisis management, as it is the official—and often only—channel made available to Tokyo.   The Foreign Ministry is often kept outside of the information loop on incidents involving other agencies but which have foreign affairs implications. This happened with the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009, when the Ministry learned about the incident from a Western embassy, not its own navy.  Similarly, the Ministry was reportedly not consulted or informed about Hainan province’s new maritime security regulations empowering provincial border police to board and search foreign vessels when they were first announced in November 2012. When diplomats from other countries sought clarification, the Ministry was unaware and unprepared. Similarly, the Ministry apparently learned about the 30 January 2013 alleged radar-locking incident seven days later through the media, instead of from the navy.  And when the agreement was brokered by the US in Scarborough Shoal for the Philippines and China to pull back, it was subsequently broken by a combination of Chinese military and maritime law enforcement actors who did not feel they had to respect an agreement struck by the MFA. It is dangerous that the agency with arguably the greatest interest in de-escalating tensions has limited access to information and constricted room for maneuver. And the majority of governments are routed through the MFA in their dealings with China, limiting their understanding of the Chinese decision-making process because they are talking to the weakest link.    

A path actually exists to reduce the chances of unintended escalation;  so no one needs to re-invent the wheel on maritime communication arrangements between China and Japan. Mechanisms just need to be reactivated. Over the last five years, China and Japan worked together to develop several maritime confidence building and communication arrangements to reduce the chances of unintended escalation in the East China Sea and improve Sino-Japanese relations (up until Sept 2012 of course). These include the Japan China Maritime Communications Mechanism (JCMCM), the Maritime Search and Rescue Cooperation Agreement (SAR Agreement), and the High level Consultation on Maritime Affairs (High Level Consultation). (For a full list, see http://csis.org/files/publication/Pac1367.pdf). Despite considerable progress in reaching agreement in principle, the political will has been lacking for the signature or implementation of these agreements.

The problem here is that while China knows that it needs to manage the islands together with Japan, it will not talk directly to Japan about protocols/rules of the road/confidence building measures (CBMs) around islands until Japan admits they are disputed. China sees direct talks with Japan about protocols/rules of the road/CBMs as a compromise; not as the logical thing to do to avoid a misstep.  There is an argument in Beijing that without this sort of concession from Tokyo, it would be heavily criticized internally for showing weakness by entering into direct talks with Tokyo. For Tokyo’s part, admitting the existence of a dispute is also an unacceptable compromise.

Compounding the danger is that many in the PLA and Maritime surveillance officials are far from convinced of the need to talk to Japan because they are confident that they can avoid a mishap. Some actors within the PLA and Maritime surveillance even say that a “minor crisis” could actually help their position, as long as it doesn’t escalate. They believe they can control escalation.

I understand that many Japanese were hopeful that after the 3rd plenum we might see a thaw.  But regrettably, I think that the Chinese government is comfortable waiting this out, while making moves to try to consolidate its position. Beijing feels it has achieved something. It has taken advantage of Japan’s purchase move in September 2012 to permanently challenge Japan’s administrative control of the islands (which can be termed “reactive assertiveness:” a tactic that turns perceived provocation by rivals claiming territory into a chance for changing the status quo in China’s favor). Despite expressions by both governments that they wish to avoid a war, the potential for escalation has increased significantly and there is deepening pessimism on all sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.

The United States—as a treaty ally of Japan, which has vital strategic interests in fostering peaceful relations with China—has been brought into the heat of the conflict. But, in this situation, Beijing views Washington as a threat, and Tokyo is questioning Washington’s resolve to defend Japan should an armed dispute erupt. Vice-President Biden will have his hands full on his upcoming trip.