A Few Questions About China’s Air Defense Identification Zone and Its Aftermath

Dr. David Lai

China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea on November 23, 2013 (See Figure 1). This move set off a security and political tsunami in the Western Pacific. The United States immediately denounced China’s sudden and unilateral act. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, the European Union, and many other nations also joined the United States in criticizing China.

       Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the strongest stand by challenging China to roll back the ADIZ. In his angry address to a parliamentary session in Tokyo, Abe stated that the “measures taken by the Chinese side have no validity whatsoever to Japan, and we demand China revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international airspace.”1
      Following this wave of condemnations, the United States also sent two B-52 bombers (based on Guam) into the Chinese-claimed ADIZ in a stated effort to challenge China’s position. Japan and South Korea also scrambled their fighter jets into the troubled airspace. This flare-up took place only a few days prior to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s long-planned visit to Northeast Asia that included stops in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul. The Vice President’s visit was originally intended to promote U.S. economic and security interests in this region. The sudden turn of events in Northeast Asia had turned the Vice President’s trip into crisis management diplomacy. Although Biden was able to talk the leaders in Japan, China, and South Korea out of their “situation rooms,” his “shuttle diplomacy” was largely a failure in all three capitals: The Japanese Prime Minister was upset that Biden did not join him to demand a roll back of the Chinese-claimed ADIZ; the Chinese president had a 5 1/2-hour uncompromising meeting with Biden; and the South Korean president declined Biden’s calls urging South Korea to improve relations with Japan and for restraint on expanding South Korea’s ADIZ into the Japanese and Chinese-claimed ADIZ’s (South Korea followed through with its words to expand its ADIZ on December 8, 2013, see Figure 2).
      The crisis is now over; yet more conflicts are sure to come. The following questions seek to make sense of the situation and bring attention to the potential issues with China’s future actions concerning the ADIZ.
Why Did China Impose Its ADIZ at This Time?
      To the outside world, China’s ADIZ came as a surprise, but the Chinese have been discussing the need for the ADIZ for quite a while. the Chinese are disgruntled because their maritime neighbors, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, have ADIZs; but China, as the “biggest boy in the block,” the one with the longest coast line in the region, and the nation with many security issues in the Western Pacific, does not have one. To the Chinese, a more appropriate question for them is: “What took us so long to make one”? Nevertheless, China’s ADIZ is not just about what the Chinese Defense Ministry has stated in its declaration that “it is a necessary measure for China to protect its state sovereignty and territorial and airspace security,” but an action directed toward Japan.
      China and Japan have been at odds over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has controlled these islands since 1972 (when the United States handed over the administration of them to Japan), and has an ADIZ (established by the United States in the early 1950s and transferred to Japan along with the islands handover) that covers a large portion of airspace over the islands (see the southern part of Japan’s ADIZ in Figures 1 and 2). Japan has categorically stated to China that those islands belong to Japan and that there is no dispute whatsoever. China insists that those islands are “stolen properties” from China and demands their return.
      The China-Japan conflict over the islands took a dramatic turn in 2012 and has intensified over the past 2 years.2 In a marked new development in the conflict, China started sending official maritime patrol vessels to challenge the Japanese Coast Guard in waters surrounding the islands. There have been many reports indicating that official vessels of the two nations have been “elbowing each other” in the contested waters, intensifying the tensions in the dispute. 
      China’s tactics in the fight for the islands are: first, to force Japan to agree that there is dispute over the sovereign ownership of those islands between China and Japan; and, second, to get Japan to negotiate with China for a solution to the dispute. Sending the patrol vessels to the troubled waters is part of China’s attempt to reinforce its claim and establish effective control of the islands and their surrounding waters.
      Additionally, China has sent official patrol aircraft to fly around the islands. However, when the Chinese surveillance airplanes enter the Japanese ADIZ, they are intercepted by the Japanese Self-Defense Air Force fighter jets.
      The Chinese are upset that the Japanese military can intercept and shadow China’s airplanes based on Japan’s self-proclaimed ADIZ. Chinese commentators have noted that the Japanese military has intercepted Chinese airplanes many times over the past 40 years, and in the past 2 years, the interceptions have increased dramatically; in 2012 alone, about 200 times. Calls have been mounting in China for the Chinese government to establish China’s ADIZ as a countermeasure against the Japanese zones. The hostile encounters in the air clearly have put more urgency into China’s decision to declare its ADIZ at this time.
      With its ADIZ in place and covering the disputed areas of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and other maritime interests,3 Chinese military planes will challenge their Japanese counterparts in the sky. Both will be covered by their own ADIZ requirements, neither accepting the other’s rule. Consequently, the airspace over the East China Sea will become increasingly more dangerous.
Does China Have The “Right” to Establish an ADIZ?
      No. Neither has any other nation the “right” to establish an ADIZ. However, any country can establish an ADIZ if it has the need and power to do so. This appears to be the case for China. Currently, there is no international law or organization to regulate the right of establishing ADIZs and the size or rules for them. It is a situation that follows the “rule of the jungle”—might makes right.
      The United States was the first to create an ADIZ in 1950. It was a product of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The United States accomplished this by citing the right of a nation to provide for its own self-defense. Along this same line, the United States also created the ADIZs for South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan in the early 1950s and subsequently transferred them to the three nations. At this point, there are about 20 nations in the world that have ADIZs.
Does It Matter that the United States Does Not Recognize China’s ADIZ?
      Although the United States does not challenge China’s “right” to establish the ADIZ (many reports about the United States calling China to “scrap” or “rescind” its ADIZ have misrepresented the U.S. position), U.S. officials have categorically stated that the United States does not recognize China’s ADIZ.4 This U.S. position concerning China’s ADIZ has some problems. First of all, ADIZs do not require international recognition. It is through customary international practice that nations manage to live with the ADIZs.
      Second, if China were a small and weak nation, it would not be able to operate its ADIZ without the superpower’s endorsement. However, China is an emerging power and it is likely that the United States will have a difficult time challenging China’s ADIZ in the future. For example, the Soviets did not, and the Russians do not, recognize the U.S. ADIZs. Their military airplanes routinely challenge the U.S. procedures, only to find themselves “escorted” out of the area. U.S. dismissal of the Chinese ADIZ may meet with similar challenges in the future.
What Is Wrong with China’s “Unilateral” and “Sudden” Declaration of the ADIZ?
      “Unilateral” and “sudden” are two key terms in the U.S. denouncement of China’s move. Under normal circumstances, a unilateral establishment of an ADIZ is not a problem. After all, all of the current ADIZs have been established unilaterally. However, China’s ADIZ is different. It overlaps with the existing ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, respectively. Although those long-established ADIZs are technically no more right or legitimate than China’s newly-established one, by courtesy however, if not by law, China should have conducted some form of consultation with those nations prior to the establishment of the ADIZ.
      More importantly, China has a special relationship with the United States, which also has an interest in the airspace in that region, and consequently, China should have established some communication with the United States as well. Indeed, less than 9 months ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a new model for great power (read U.S.-China) relations at his meetings with President Barack Obama at Sunnylands, California, in June 2013.5 A key element in this proposal was that the United States and China should notify each other of major actions that could have an impact on the relationship between the two nations. Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan reiterated this point during his visit to the Pentagon 2 months later. As stated in Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s opening remarks at the joint press briefing, “General Chang brought up two of the initiatives that President Xi proposed to President Obama at their summit in June, one, a way to notify each other of major military activities, and, two, rules of behavior for military air and naval activities.”6 China broke this agreement, violated its own proposal, and caught the United States off guard in its “unilateral” and “sudden” declaration of the ADIZ. Consequently, the United States has valid reasons to be displeased with China’s action and to object to them.
Did the United States Do the Right Thing in Sending the B-52s into China’s ADIZ?
      There was a joke circulating China’s internet at the time that the Chinese military did not see the U.S. B-52s coming because the air condition was too bad in China (and in the East China Sea). China only learned about the B-52 flights from foreign sources, and by the time the Chinese military undertook actions, it was already too late—the U.S. warplanes had already left.
      However, all joking aside, the decision by the United States to take the lead to challenge China’s implementation is questionable. As analyzed earlier, China’s ADIZ is directed at Japan. It would have made sense for Japan to be the first one to challenge China’s move. The United States should maintain its position that: 1) China and Japan resolve their differences (disputes) through peaceful means; 2) the United States upholds its treaty obligations to the defense of Japan; and, 3) all the stakeholders in the East Asia ADIZs should establish communications and work out the rules of engagement to avoid unwanted military confrontation. This way, the United States maintains its moral high ground and strategic flexibility, and preserves its role as a leader for peace and stability in the Western Pacific. By being the first to challenge China, the United States has directly involved itself as a disputant in this potentially explosive issue.
Did China Overplay Its Hand by Requiring All Aircraft to Comply with its Rules in the ADIZ?
      Yes, but it appears that China did this on purpose—these rules are targeted at U.S. and Japanese military airplanes. Indeed, for a long time China has objected to U.S. military airplanes flying in the vicinity of China’s coast lines. The Chinese are also upset with Japanese military planes patrolling the Japanese-claimed ADIZs that are now overlapped with China’s ADIZ. China took note of the objections from the United States, Japan, and other nations, but expressed no regret or intent to modify the rules, although Chinese officials did come out to clarify that China’s newly-declared ADIZ is not a territorial/sovereign space or a no-fly zone.
      In response to the U.S. B-52 flights, Chinese Ministry of National Defense officials asserted that they carefully monitored the U.S. flights; and since the U.S. bombers were unarmed and had no intention to fly over China’s territory, China had no need to take action against them.
     Additionally, China appears to be confident and determined to enforce the ADIZ. Shortly after the imposition of the ADIZ, China started regular air patrol flights in the area. Within a month, the Chinese identified 800 flights by foreign military airplanes in the newly-established zone, received notes from 56 civil/commercial airlines on 2147 flights; and dispatched 51 sorties of surveillance, early-warning, and fighter jets into the ADIZ. These assertive Chinese moves have indeed ushered in a new situation in the East China Sea. It will be more contentious in the time to come.
Will China Establish More ADIZs in the Western Pacific?
      Definitely. A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson has already indicated that China will do so at appropriate times.
Will There Be More Conflict when China Establishes More ADIZs in the Western Pacific?
      Absolutely. China’s future ADIZs will overlap with the ADIZs of South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. An ADIZ between China and the Philippines will also be controversial. There is no telling what will happen between China and its maritime neighbors when China imposes its future ADIZs in those areas.
Is There Another Agenda Prompting China’s Actions?
      In addition to China’s stated purpose—the ADIZ is “to protect its state sovereignty and territorial and airspace security”—China is preparing itself to be a stakeholder in future international ADIZ debates and agreements. Indeed, the ADIZ issue resembles the Exclusive Economic Zones on the oceans from the decades prior to the creation of the Law of the Sea. If establishment of ADIZs becomes an international issue large enough to foster the creation of international laws and regulations, China wants to make sure that the laws will not be made only to favor the United States and its allies.
What Should Be Done about the ADIZ Conflict in the Western Pacific?
      Vice President Joe Biden made the following statement in Seoul, South Korea:
I’ve also made it clear that we expect China not to take action that increases tensions at the risk of escalation. And I was crystal-clear about our commitment to our allies, Korea and Japan. More broadly, I’ve made clear that there are practical steps countries can take and should take to lower the temperature, to reduce the risk of conflict, including avoiding actions that seem provocative, establishing lines of communication between militaries to manage incidents and prevent escalation.7
      U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh stated recently at the American Enterprise Institute that:
I hope it’s not a platform for conflict. I hope it is a platform for communication. . . . I think it gives us a great mandate for communicating better with each other and understanding there could potentially be mistakes and miscommunication in this kind of interchange if we establish air defense zones that overlay airspace where we know other nations are already operating. . . .This is a discussion that needs to happen, it needs to be an international discussion, we need to do it with our allies and I think we’re heavily involved in that right now. So I hope it’s an opportunity for better communication. That’s the only acceptable future.8
      Some U.S. commentators have criticized these perspectives and accused the Obama administration for appeasing China at the expense of U.S. allies in East Asia. Others argue that this is the right thing to do. By many measures, the latter is more prudent. 

        1. Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo, Japan; Louise Watt and Chris Bodeen in Beijing, China; and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Korea, “Japan, China in War of Words over Airspace,” Associated Press, November 25, 2013.

        2. See David Lai, Asia-Pacific: A Strategic Assessment, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2013, for a detailed discussion of this intensified conflict.
        3. See Ibid., for a detailed discussion of the disputed interests between China and Japan in the East China Sea.
        4. See Office of the Vice President, “Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden on U.S.-Korea Relations and the Asia-Pacific,” Washington, DC: The White House, December 6, 2013; Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), “Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and Minister Ng Eng Hen of Singapore Defense Ministry,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, December 12, 2013; and Office of the President, “Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary Jay Carney,” Washington, DC: The White House, December 5, 2013.
        5. See David Lai, “Doubts on China’s New Model for Great Power Relationship,” available from
        6. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), “Press Briefing with Secretary Hagel and Gen. Chang from the Pentagon,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, August 19, 2013.
        7. “Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden on U.S.-Korea Relations and the Asia-Pacific.”
        8. Remarks made during his address at the American Enterprise Institute on “Squaring the Circle: General Mark Welsh III on American Military Strategy in a Time of Declining Resources,” December 11, 2013.


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