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Chinese Air Zone Exposes US-Japan Limits

China ADIZ

China’s new ADIZ

By Alex Calvo

Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands and part of the waters between Japan and Taiwan has prompted a strong reaction from Tokyo and, generally speaking, has left nobody in East Asia indifferent.

From a Chinese perspective, the ADIZ seems to fit with the strategy of securing what it considers to be essential national security objectives by small, gradual steps; significant when viewed together, but not of a sufficiently large impact when considered in isolation to prompt its neighbors to resort to force in self-defense.

This is portrayed by Chinese commentators as part of the country’s “comeback” after a century of outside interference in their affairs. This strong sense of history, and an acute awareness of some of their country’s strategic vulnerabilities, when combined with the possibilities afforded by economic growth, may explain, at least in part, the continued string of small steps to secure a much more favorable position for the country — in terms of strategic maritime depth, access to the open seas, reduced vulnerability to sea lines of communication, recognition as a great power with a special status in Asia, and control over suspected or proven natural resources.

On the other hand, from a Japanese perspective, the ADIZ increases the pressure on the country’s outposts and the vital sea lines of communication connecting it to the rest of the world. It threatens to open a rift with Washington, while at the same time offering the potential for deeper defense relations with the fellow maritime democracies and Vietnam.

Beyond national security and the economic factors, the ADIZ’s position between Japan and Taiwan highlights the contested identity of the latter and its connection to Japanese identity itself. An independent Taiwan is not only beneficial for Japan when it comes to guarding its southern flank, but it is also a bridge with its past.

According to a November 24 communique by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Mr. Junichi Ihara, Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of MOFA lodged Japan’s strong protest to Mr. Han Zhigiang, Minister of the Chinese Embassy in Japan concerning the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea that the Ministry of National Defense of China had announced on the same day.” In the protest it was said that the ADIZ was “totally unacceptable as it included the Japanese territorial airspace over the Senkaku Islands, which is an inherent territory of Japan,” adding that China’s “unilateral” move was “extremely dangerous as it could unilaterally escalate the situation surrounding the Senkaku Islands and lead to an unexpected occurrence of accidents in the airspace.”

The reaction in the Japanese press was, generally speaking, also hostile to China’s decision. Commentary focused on three key issues: Washington’s posture, instructions to civil airlines, and the possibility that Beijing may declare another ADIZ, this time covering the South China Sea.

Ideally, Japan would like to have seen the United States government state, in no uncertain terms, that it was not recognizing China’s ADIZ, and see this followed by military flights and orders to its airliners not to comply with Beijing’s instructions. The result was a draw: America sent two B-52s into the ADIZ in defiance of Chinese regulations, but shied away from instructing its civilian airliners to take the same stance.

Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, a hawkish former diplomat and adviser to the Japanese prime minister, has asserted: “For China, to send official vessels almost every day to Japan’s waters and to up the ante by establishing its own air defense identification zone over the Senkakus both serve the same purpose, which is to dilute Japan’s administrative control over the islands, so that one day, applying the US-Japan Security Treaty to the protection of the islands might invite some serious second thoughts.” He added that this was “another attempt by Beijing to establish a fait accompli about its territorial claims by forcefully changing the status quo,” stressing that “no responsible member of the rules-based international order should pursue such an exhibit of force.”

Concerning the US-Japan Security Treaty, it should be remembered that the US takes no official position on the ultimate sovereignty over the islands, while pledging to defend Japan, understanding that as comprising all territories under Tokyo’s administration. One could argue that, once a territory ceased to be under Japanese administration, it would no longer be covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. Of course, one could also argue that the offensive operations leading to that loss of control would trigger American intervention — but here we should remember that there may be other ways in which Tokyo may lose control over one or more of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.

Concerning instructions to civilian airliners, this is a key issue which has prompted some observers to note how American policy has evolved from initial defiance to partial accommodation. For example, Indian Professor Brahma Chellaney posted a comment on his Facebook page saying that, “Team Obama, changing course, appears willing to accept China’s new air-defense zone.” Summing up the situation, Reuter’s Paul Carsten wrote, “The United States has made clear it will stand by treaty obligations that require it to defend the Japanese-controlled islands, but it is also reluctant to get dragged into any military clash between the Asian rivals.”

Initially, China’s ADIZ prompted two official US statements on November 23, one from the Pentagon and the other from the State Department. The Defense Department text said that the United States was “deeply concerned” and saw the new ADIZ as “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” adding that “this unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” The Pentagon statement made it clear that the move would “not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” and it stressed Washington’s “commitments to our allies and partners,” ending with an explicit reminder that “Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

Two aspects are significant; one in line with Japanese interests, the other against. On the plus side for Tokyo, the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands were explicitly referred to by the Japanese name, and not through a formula referring to their administration. On the negative side for Japan, the statement referred only to “military operations,” not civilian flights.

The communique from the State Department also said that the United States was “deeply concerned” and called the action “unilateral” and “escalatory,” describing it as “an attempt to change the status quo,” and adding that it would “create risks of an incident.” After stressing the importance of “freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace” to “prosperity, stability, and security in the Pacific,” it explained that Washington did not support efforts by any country to apply “ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace.” The text also reminded readers of the United States’ commitment to allies and expressed a wish to “see a more collaborative and less confrontational future in the Pacific.”

Also significant was US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s maiden speech upon arriving in Japan, in which she criticized China’s “unilateral actions” in the East China Sea, saying that they “undermine security.” She also noted, “Japan has shown great restraint this past year, and we urge them to continue to do so.” After describing her late father’s admiration for Japan and desire to visit the country as president, as well as the tight nature of joint US-Japan defense arrangements, Kennedy quoted Winston Churchill, saying, “At the same time, as Winston Churchill said, ‘We arm to parley.’” The idea was clear: diplomacy can only succeed if supported by military might, which is not an end in itself but indispensable for a country’s or an alliance’s credibility.

While in Japan, US Vice President Joe Biden also said that his country was “deeply concerned,” but again this seemed to fall short of the Japanese government’s hopes and expectations.

However, beyond these generic declarations of support for Japan, the vexed issue of what instructions to give to civil airliners seemed to open a rift between Tokyo and Washington. While Japanese authorities ordered the country’s carriers to disregard Chinese regulations and abstain from reporting flight plans to Beijing, Washington took the opposite decision. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, “Japanese officials on Sunday played down publicly — but complained privately — that the U.S. isn’t following Tokyo in rebuffing Beijing’s demands for foreign airlines to file flight plans when navigating through China’s new air-defense zone. The developments came as Japan openly questioned the Chinese military’s ability to police the zone.”

Washington’s decision not to force a showdown with Beijing was confirmed by different official sources. The US government recommended that commercial airlines comply with Chinese regulations “for the safety and security of passengers.” US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said that, “Even if we don’t believe ADIZ is warranted, the United States does not impose an ADIZ on aircraft that are not entering US airspace. But at the same time, we can’t, with commercial aircraft, take chances as I mentioned of miscalculation, so we have recommended to our commercial airlines that they give such notification.” Facing criticism from those who saw this as a concession, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that it was not the case, explaining that Washington did “not accept the legitimacy of China’s requirements.”

With regard to a possible second Chinese ADIZ, over the South China Sea, or part of it, a number of observers have warned about this possibility. Professor Taniguchi posted a comment on his Facebook page on November 27 saying that if Beijing “in the future extended also to cover the South China Sea, the so-called ADIZ and the surface line Beijing is drawing in the sea both will constitute a three dimensional ‘no-entry’ space.”

Japan’s strong reaction against China’s ADIZ was, generally speaking, shared by many observers and experts in other maritime democracies. For example, Professor Chellaney explained on his Facebook page that this was “China’s territorial creep in action: After claiming 80% of South China Sea, it sets up air defense identification zone encompassing Senkakus.” These words do not only reflect the strong suspicions that Chinese actions prompt in India, but also the connection between events in the East China and the South China Seas felt by many in Asia. Chellaney went further, drawing a parallel between Chinese actions in the Himalayas and at sea, saying, “What China has done to Japan through its provocative new aerial zone is the equivalent of what it did to India by intruding 19km into Ladakh.”

In Taiwan the response was relatively low-key, as noted by a number of observers. The Asahi Shinbun described Taipei as “noticeably quiet on the matter, despite the fact some of its own airspace falls under Beijing’s ADIZ,” adding that some unidentified analysts saw it as reflecting “President Ma Ying-jeou’s emphasis on improving ties with China.” While the Taipei government issued a statement on November 29 saying that the ADIZ would “not help the development of cross-straits relations,” the legislative branch went further. After protests from the opposition benches, talks took place with ruling party lawmakers. The outcome was a joint statement saying that a “rigorous protest should be submitted to China and efforts made to fall in step with allies in the region. Flight plans should not have to be submitted.” At present Taiwanese commercial airlines are doing so.

The main Taiwanese opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, did not just protest against the administration’s policy but conducted an opinion poll in early December that showed three-quarters of the general public were against the Civil Aeronautics Administration complying with the Chinese request for flight plans.

Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui emerged as a harsh critic of Taipei’s policy of compliance. He said that it evidenced President Ma’s “one-China mindset,” adding that it risked making Taiwan appear before other countries as belonging to China. He asked, “Is Taiwan an [independent] country or what? If the US and Japan can [refuse to comply with China’s requirements], why can’t Taiwan?” He added that the head of the state should act in accordance with “the best interests of the nation and its people.”

The outcome of the ADIZ affair seems to be a mixed one for Japan, with Washington having joined Tokyo in protesting the zone and even having flown two B-52s through it, but at the same time instructing civilian airlines to accept it. A major concern for Japanese national security will be the question of how to draw the US government into closer alignment to Japanese interests.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona, and Guest Professor at Nagoya University.