08.01.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Chinese “Air Defense Identification Zone”: an error or strategically considered step?

PLA-Type-95-SPAAGM-2SThe introduction of the so-called Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea (ECS) on November 23 by the Ministry of Defense of the PRC remains one of the major world political events of recent months. We should remember that this step was taken by Beijing 40 years after a similar zone was marked by Japan, that is, one of the major regional opponents of China and that may become the major opponent in the future.

The special significance of the emergence of Chinese ADIZ is determined by the fact that this area is located over that part of water area of the Asian-Pacific Region, where the center of a global political game is shifting. This water area, adjacent to the east coast of the PRC and Hindustan is a modern political “Balkans”, a particularly sensitive spot where interests of the world’s leading players intersect.

In connection with the introduction of Beijing’s own ADIZ, some domestic experts have expressed their opinion that this event is “subsequent and obvious blunder” of Chinese diplomacy. There are some grounds for such estimations, if we recall the consequences of the “assertiveness” policy that has been pursued since 2009 by the former PRC leadership, primarily in the South China Sea.

In response to the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, some coastal countries called for assistance, first of all, these were the Philippines and Vietnam. Such calls were heard in Washington, and then the sub-region of Southeast Asia was often visited by leading American statesmen, who ignored Chinese demands for non-interference by “forces outside the region” in territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbors. The seriousness of the U.S. intentions was stressed by the “exploration” of the South China Sea by ships of the United States Seventh Fleet.

Apparently, China soon realized that it was strengthening the position of its main geopolitical opponent, in a critically important sub-region, by its own actions. In recent months, this has led to a positive turn in rhetoric coming from the Chinese leadership, in relation to its southern neighbors.

Nevertheless, the strengthening of military and political presence in the South China Sea has become a fait accompli, and this was confirmed again by a recent incident caused by maneuvers of the USS Cowpens in a dangerous proximity to the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, participating in a routine exercise of the South Sea Fleet of China.

The opinion that China has made yet another foreign policy blunder, by the introduction of ADIZ, is based on some reasonable points. First, since an underwater archipelago, being de facto under the control of South Korea (but claimed by the PRC), has come within the ADIZ, it has provoked a deterioration of relations between Beijing and Seoul.

Meanwhile, the establishment of confidence in the bilateral relations in recent years has become an important achievement for China’s foreign policy, as it has blocked Washington’s years-long efforts to form a tripartite military-political alliance of “USA-Japan-South Korea”.

Although official comments of the Ministry of Defense of China make it clear that the introduction of the ADIZ is aimed against Japan (relationships with which seem impossible to worsen), rather than against South Korea, now the leadership of the latter may simply have no choice but to enter on a path of rapprochement with Tokyo. Even despite the fact that anti-Japanese sentiment is growing among Koreans. Anyway, there have already been reports of a possible coordination of efforts by both countries to counter possible Chinese military actions within the space outlined by the ADIZ.

Secondly, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have not recognized the legitimacy of this Chinese zone, and aircraft of their carrier companies ignore the requirements established by the Ministry of Defense of China for flight within the ADIZ. All this provides grounds to assess these activities of the PRC as counterproductive.

Yet, despite the obvious current tactical costs, apparently, this decision to introduce the ADIZ is based on strategic goal setting. The latter seems likely, at least because information was released about the possible establishment of the ADIZ also the South China Sea by Beijing, appeared after the manifestation of negative consequences of this decision for China.

Possible strategic aspects of this measure taken by China are indicated, in particular, by Robbin F. Laird and Edward Timperlake – the authors of recently published monograph “Restructuring of American Military Power in the Asia-Pacific Region”i. This was published about a month before the introduction of the ADIZ by China, and the authors naturally considered it necessary to comment on one of the most remarkable regional political events of recent times, in a special article.

When analyzing the motives and consequences of the action of the Ministry of Defense of China being discussed here, they are based on the concept, formulated in the book – about the “elongated strategic quadrangle” formed by four key regional allies of the U.S.A., i.e., Japan, Australia, Singapore and South Korea. The efficiency of American own power triangle, formed by military bases on the territory of the United States (Hawaiian archipelago, island of Guam) and in Japan, can only be achieved under conditions of freedom of movement on the sea and in the air spaces of the quadrangle.

Thus, based on the said positions, the fact of the introduction of Chinese ADIZ, which is within the said “quadrangle”, means that the PRC is creating a basis for solving its military strategic objectives. This is caused by the need to breach the freedom of movement of combat units and military cargo of regional opponents in this “quadrangle” – if such a need becomes relevant.

In particular, this may occur if Beijing loses its patience, watching Taiwan more and more turning into a de facto independent state, instead of coming back, in one form or another, the bosom of the “mother country” (mainland). This directly contradicts the ultimate goals of the PRC’s policy on the development of economic and cultural relations with Taiwan.

In the case of transition to “non-peaceful” means of addressing the problem of “restoring the unity of the nation”, which was provided for by the legislative act of National People’s Congress in 2005, the task of preventing the United States from interfering in the conflict (most likely jointly with Japan) will become highly relevant.

Contrary to popular opinion that the main purpose of introducing Chinese ADIZ are the islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu, the possession of which China disputes with Japan, Zachary Keck, deputy publisher of the electronic journal The Diplomat, popular in the region, believes that the main target is Taiwan.

If the speculations the abovementioned experts are close to the truth, it will mean that the establishment of China’s own ADIZ in the East China Sea proves that Beijing has chosen a political strategy of counterforce counteraction. This is directed against attempts of its regional opponents to limit China’s own freedom of action on the space immediately adjacent to the territory of the PRC. Only further developments can show whether this version is correct or not.

However, even now there is no doubt that in choosing the military and political strategy of “edge against edge”, which is typical in Chinese tradition, will be accompanied by considerable risks. For example, some members of Taiwanese political elite have spoken about the need to protect their own ADIZ, and about joining Japan and South Korea in order to counteract possible military action of the PRC.

Finally, it must be noted that one should not underestimate the potential of the strategic thinking of the Chinese leadership – a country whose history stretches back more than one millennium. In these rather straitened circumstances (to a large extent being a consequence of their own mistakes), China apparently has no “good” policies and it has to choose between “bad” and “very bad”.

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Asia and Middle East Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook

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