Written by Huang Wei.
China’s recent move to establish the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) is widely considered negative and seen by some commentators as having backfired, especially when the U.S. sent B-52 bombers to touch upon the edge of China’s ADIZ.
Such a development was hardly unexpected by Beijing. It would be against common sense to believe that China, when planning the ADIZ, was hoping that Japan or the U.S. would welcome it, and only realised its dilemma between harsh and mild monitoring of the ADIZ later. In fact, during public discussions preceding the establishment of the ADIZ, Chinese experts already expressed their concerns on two levels: first, whether the Chinese Air Force would be able to monitor the ADIZ effectively, and second, whether it was necessary to do so. Even though these opinions, interestingly, are not easy to find online after the official announcement of the ADIZ, it would be unfair to suppose that the Chinese government did not take possible scenarios into consideration before the policy decision was made. Thus, it isn’t difficult to notice that what China presents is a carefully designed “moderate version” of ADIZ, one with flexible interpretation which allows China to react at various levels according to its own perception of the situations. This is consistent with Chinese governmental rhetoric and its moderate reactions to recent challenges. Rather than a “paper tiger”, China’s ADIZ should be more properly seen as a “barking dog”, for it is more of a diplomatic posture to show China’s determination, than a military arrangement to display its muscle.
Chinese experts, endorsing the official statements, have been emphasizing four points about the ADIZ. First, China’s ADIZ is legal and in accordance with international practice. Second, China’s ADIZ is legitimate because it is responsive rather than provocative. From a Chinese perspective, it was Japan that first tried to change the status quo in East China Sea and China has only been reacting in a legitimate way. The establishment of China’s ADIZ, too, is not unprecedented as many other countries, including Japan and the U.S., have established their own long time ago and have been using it in support of their diplomatic statements. Third, China has the ability to defend itself, and doesn’t give up its right to employ military means when necessary. Last but not least, the establishment of ADIZ doesn’t deviate from China’s road of peaceful development, and won’t become the prelude of a war between China and Japan or the U.S. According to the Chinese interpretation the ADIZ will serve as a buffer between concerned parties and thus contribute to regional stability. While the first point has been echoed by most international observers and the second remains arguable yet understandable to many, the third and fourth points seem contradicting and hard to buy, as they always are. If China’s establishment of the ADIZ conveys no new message than adding to doubts about China’s peaceful development strategy and worries about China’s military aggrandizement, why did it not backfire?
Being aware of existing tensions in the region and possible responses to its action, China announced its ADIZ not only to sound out concerned parties, but also to consolidate its bottom line and shift its diplomatic burden of crisis management.
China’s ADIZ was not intended to test the concerned parties’ bottom line. Rather, China clearly understands that no country intends to escalate tensions and start a war—this is exactly why China didn’t hesitate too much to make a move that would definitely be criticized by the international community, no matter how justifiable it is. In the meantime, China doesn’t seem able to precisely map out other countries’ strategies, especially when it comes to domestic factors that influence foreign policies in Japan and the U.S., and the interaction between the two countries. The Chinese public, heavily influence by the mass media, tend to pay attention to Japanese and U.S. moves that are hostile to China; Chinese elite, though more likely to be aware of the complexity of relevant issues, can’t do anything to change, for those are difficult problems even for Japanese and American politicians themselves. Diplomatic incidents, including the Tokyo government’s intended purchase and ensuing Japanese nationalization of the disputed islands, and ambiguous and sometimes conflicting stances expressed by various U.S. governmental branches and representatives, confuse Chinese observers about concerned parties’ short-term plans. While trying to analyse these, China has to make sure its stances are articulated and consolidated.
On the other hand, China seems to have discovered a new pattern to respond to Japanese provocations that is more convenient than the previous one. In the decades since the normalization of Sino-Japan relationship in the 1970s, the Chinese government has responded to Japanese unfriendly moves, including rightist historical textbooks and visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, mainly with diplomatic rhetoric. It has proved to be an effective way of tension management, as the two countries generally maintain bilateral relations in spite of fluctuations. From a Chinese perspective, however, Japan might take this as Chinese acquiescence of certain moves and continue to provoke, while China has not many choices other than diplomatic denouncement. In 2012, however, when China perceived Japan as attempting to change the status quo unilaterally by nationalizing the disputed islands, it reacted by sending surveillance ships to maintain the status of dispute, and Japan was left with not many choices—as Japan doesn’t want to worsen the situation either. To simplify the case, it might give China the impression that it is more convenient to make symbolic moves first than to denounce later, for the early actor has relatively greater space to maneuver, and the latter is always faced with more pressure of crisis management. After all, crisis management is not an enjoyable task for China, a late comer to the international system without mature diplomatic skills. By the same token, China’s ADIZ, as a diplomatic signal flare, doesn’t result in substantial changes in a military sense, but gained China the advantage of acting first. When Abe started the crisis management mechanism and Japanese media were busy interpreting responses of concerned parties, what China did was to repeat its well-grounded interpretation of the ADIZ statements. If China’s nationalism is to be taken into consideration, it is convenient in a different sense for the Chinese government to take a seemingly hawkish position.
China’s establishment of its own ADIZ generally served the diplomatic purpose of consolidating China’s bottom line concerning territorial and sovereign issues, and shift the crisis management burden at the same time. Yet it is dangerous if China, or any other country, takes it as convenient to add another straw to the camel’s back. Even the Chinese public, usually seen as increasingly nationalist, are rationally aware of this. As a somehow ignored part of a widely cited survey conducted by the Global Times, 50.1% respondents expressed their concern about the rising possibility of conflicts resulting from China’s ADIZ. Crisis is by definition unpredictable and no country can manage it alone, and the camel’s back may be broken at any moment without any country realizing what the last straw was.
Huang Wei is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and visiting scholar at Renmin University of China.