China Policy Institute: Analysis



The Islands In-between

Written by Misato Matsuoka.

The “Senkaku”, “Diaoyu” or “Diaoyutai” islands have been at the centre of a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan. There is no consensus about the historical trajectory of the ownership of the islands. The tensions, especially between China and Japan, have intensified, triggered by the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats and Japan’s official announcement of nationalisation which made the Economist report that “China and Japan are sliding towards war”. The circumstances were further aggravated with China’s announcement of “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) on the 23rd November 2013. Taiwan even conducted a joint exercise between the ROC Navy and Coast Guard in February 2014, considered as “an indication that Taiwan is pursuing its own national interests despite China’s announcement in November 2013 of a new ADIZ that heightened tensions in the region.” The disputed waters not involve only Japan, China and Taiwan but also the US via its commitments to the US-Japan defence treaty, positioning the US as a guarantor of Japan’s security. Shortly after China’s ADIZ declaration, US B-52 aircraft and South Korean and Japanese military aircraft flew through the zone in an act of defiance.

In the midst of the tensions in the troubled waters of the East China Sea, a Taiwan-Japan fisheries agreement was signed in April 2013 in order to resolve a long-standing dispute between the two sides. The agreement also established that any future talks would be conducted by the Japan-Taiwan Fishery Committee, bringing an element of institutional stability. Naturally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the fisheries pact but that has not stopped both sides proceeding with further implementation of the agreement. In a first test of the new agreement, Japan and Taiwan agreed to new rules of operation in January 2014 in order to soothe the anger of Okinawan fishermen who were concerned about the absence of specific rules. Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah touted the progress made, saying that “The Taiwan and Japan Fisheries Agreement has not only protected Taiwanese fishing rights and increased bluefin tuna harvests, it has also won favorable coverage from many international news outlets.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also praised fisheries agreement. During his address at the East-West Center in Honolulu this summer, he noted that agreement “serves as a good example to promote regional stability amid escalating tensions in the East China Sea.”

As noted by Kawashima (2013), the fisheries agreement is intimately associated with Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative” proposal that was put forward by Ma amidst the crisis between Japan and China over nationalization of Senkaku islands. While Taiwan has not abandoned its sovereignty claim, as Ma’s peace initiative is based on the “sovereignty cannot be divided but natural resources can be shared” principle, its approach shows that seeking to resolve territorial disputes in the area through peaceful means does not have to be beyond claimant states’ reach. According to the Ting Joseph Shih, the head of the Taipei Mission in Seoul, the number of unresolved issues between Taiwan and Japan with regard to fishing was reduced to one since 2013 when the accord was signed, down from 17 disputes. Shih also argued that this lesson can be applied other East Asian territorial disputes. This is certainly an argument Taipei likes to push to promote Taiwan’s approach as a regional model.

Naturally, the US presence cannot be ignored in the context of the East China Sea disputes, especially with its persisting interests in rebalancing to Asia. US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work claimed at the event organized by Council on Foreign Relations that the US will support Japan if the islands are under attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under Article Five of the US-Japan Security Treaty, thus echoing the re-assurance given by President Obama during his April visit to Japan. Work further re-iterated an earlier commitment that 60% of US forces will be stationed in the Asia-Pacific region in the year 2020, reaching a total of 100,000 military personnel. While the US does not want to see conflict between Japan and China, it will seek to reinforce the current alliance network in the hopes that it will deter potential conflict, and if not, then the US and its allies will be prepared for it.

The most recent development has been somewhat calmer and a quiet decline in confrontations around Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands has been observed. Moreover, Japan and China’s top naval commanders talked informally during an International Seapower Symposium reception hosted by the US. Jiji Press, one of the Japanese major news agencies, remarks that the two agreed “to communicate more closely to help avoid unexpected incidents at sea.” In this sense, there seems less interest for all sides in aggravating the circumstances, which is also in line with the US preference to avoid being drawn into conflict over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands. Thus, the recent developments suggest that all actors involved may be willing to reduce tensions and find more pragmatic arrangements. However, public opinion does not expect a peaceful resolution: more than half of Chinese see war with Japan likely. According to the survey conducted by Genron, Japanese nongovernmental organisation, and the China Daily, a Chinese state-run newspaper, 53.4 percent of Chinese and 29 percent of Japanese believe that there could be a future military confrontation. Considering the result of this poll, no one can be overly optimistic about prospects of peaceful resolution. Especially when a crisis can be triggered by a mere collision between law enforcement vessels and fishing boats.

Misato Matsuoka is an Early Career Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons/Al Jazeera English.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands: The Spark for Great Power War?

Written by Harry Kazianis.

While China has multiple overlapping territorial claims with many of its neighbors in various parts of the East and South China Seas, none has more potential for great power conflict as claims concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In fact, considering this hotly disputed area of the Asia-Pacific is contested by two of the world’s premier economic and military powers, China and also Japan, it is safe to say the area around the islands is one of only a few places on planet Earth that could spark a truly catastrophic conflict with possible nuclear ramification that could draw in the United States.

Called Diaoyu by China, Senkaku by Japan (the islands are also claimed by Taiwan) these small islands have been a constant flashpoint leading to at least one incident that came close to military confrontation. While today most media is focused on the various crises in the Middle East, the trend lines in the East China Sea point to a slowly escalating situation, that if not properly managed, could spiral into a tragic conflict.

In order to understand the deep-rooted tensions surrounding what are actually very small but geostrategically important islands with possible large deposits of natural resources, historical context is needed.[i]

Understanding the claims of both sides present and the evident they present is important. Japan and China lay claim to the islands under different aspects of international law.  Tokyo’s case rests on the idea of “occupation of terra nullius”—or land without an owner. Japan stresses that when it formally took over the area (in an 1895 cabinet decision), it had established the islands were uninhabited—and more importantly—showed no trace of having been under the control of Beijing.

For its part China asserts its case though what can be called an historical claim. Beijing claims to have evidence that it exercised sovereignty through various parts of its historical experience—not dissimilar to claims in the South China Sea. These include the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1912). China also points out the islands were ceded to Japan as part of the unjust 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War. Since the treaty came about presumably by force of arms—so this line of argument goes—they should be returned to China.  Beijing also bases some of its claims under the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations (1943 and 1945) that Japan must return all territories seized through war.

America also plays a role in the various claims and counter claims. At the conclusion of World War II, the islands were occupied, along with Ryukyu Islands, by the U.S. under the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco.  Control then reverted back to Japanese administration in 1972.  The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the territory since Tokyo is the defacto administrator of the islands. While U.S. officials have made it now quite clear they wish to see both sides work towards some sort of compromise, multiple American officials—including the President Obama himself—have made it clear the islands would be defended, along with any other part of Japanese territory, from any sort of outside aggression.

While tensions today over the islands run high, the possibility of armed conflict is a relatively new phenomenon. During the 1970’s, Japan and China had different goals—the normalization of relations. Both sides understood the challenge the dispute over the islands could pose to such a goal. Creating an even larger stumbling block was a 1969 UN-led geologic survey that claimed possible vast natural resources in the surrounding area around the islands. Negotiators came up with an interesting compromise: to relegate the issue to future generations and/or downplay the dispute.  Both nations were more concerned about cementing ties in light of rising Soviet power in the Pacific than competing island claims.  Here the work of MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel, who is largely credited to bringing these discussions to light, is important:

In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries.  In a recent book, Seton Hall scholar Yinan He cites a collection of documents on Chinese-Japanese relations: in July 1972, Zhou told Takeiri, “There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries].”   A Japanese magazine article earlier this month contains a similar account.  Thus, from China’s point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist.

Fravel also notes a similar discussion several years later that are also telling:

 Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus at a later time.  A chronology or nianpu of Deng’s activities published by a party research office summarizes a meeting between Deng and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda.  According to the book, Deng stated: “It’s not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don’t drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

While neither side dropped its claims, tension over the area remained frozen until 2010. With the threat of the Soviet Union gone and the rise of nationalism in both countries, old claims resurfaced. Thanks to a 2010 incident involving the seizure by Japan of a Chinese fisherman near the islands the issue sparked a major diplomatic row. Matters grew more complicated in April 2012 when Tokyo’s then governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan during a lecture at the Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation to purchase 3 of the 5 islands from private Japanese owners, inflaming tensions.  The government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda felt compelled to act.  The government was concerned that if Ishihara purchased the disputed territory tensions would grow to unacceptable levels. Looking over its options, it was decided an effort must be made to head off the possible Ishihara purchase, having Japan buy the islands themselves—effectively nationalizing them. Tokyo, which expected a negative reaction from Beijing, felt it was important to control the situation and hedge against what was felt at the time would be an even less desirable outcome.  Japan saw the issue as a “transfer of property from a private owner to the central government and would not change the status quo.” China considered the action illegal which has led to strained ties to this day.

China’s reaction to brewing tensions over the contested islands in the East China Sea has grown ever more aggressive. China has utilized a strategy—as one scholar has dubbed it —of “small-stick diplomacy.” Beijing has sent varying amounts of non-naval maritime vessels, from fishing vessels to unarmed coast guard craft to press its claims. As China claims these islands as part of its “core interests,” Beijing feels it has the right to patrol them and fish them acting as if they are undisputed, sovereign waters. China has also sent air assets—namely reconnaissance aircraft and at times fighter aircraft in clear attempts to demonstrate sovereignty. An early 2013 incident involving a Chinese destroyer locking its firing-radar onto a Japanese destroyer and helicopter clearly demonstrated the dangerous escalatory nature of these competing claims. Beijing has also declared as of November 23, 2013, an ADIZ across a large swath of the East China Sea that covers the disputed islands. Less than twenty-four hours after China’s declaration, Washington was quick to reiterate its treaty commitments to Tokyo. In a statement by the U.S. Department of Defense, “We remain steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The U.S. reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

China’s reaction has created an equally concerning Japanese reaction. Tokyo has sought to increase its defense budget after over a decade of small decreases. Japan is also re-orientating its forces towards the area of dispute with China, developing amphibious-landing capabilities and training with U.S. forces as well as increasing the procurement of ever-advanced conventionally powered submarines and highly advanced helicopter carriers that can deploy, in theory, American V-22 Osprey’s that could carry small groups of combat troops to the Senkakus.

So what happens if either side starts shooting over these small but hotly disputed islands?

When considering China’s and Japan’s escalating tensions over the Senkakus, Beijing’s A2/AD strategy is an extremely important aspect of such a discussion. China would essentially deploy the same strategy it would use against the U.S. Considering that Japan’s Navy, excluding the U.S., is the most advanced in Asia; China would have no choice but to use an asymmetric strategy in a wartime scenario. Most experts expect Washington would come to Tokyo’s aid. While U.S. officials—for obvious reasons—have not spelled out what assistance they would provide, it seems reasonable to suggest such efforts would be largely compromised of naval assets. Washington has forward deployed a Carrier Battle Group (or CBG) in Japan that would likely be utilized in such a scenario.

If a crisis broke out, China would gain considerable advantage in striking its opponents early with massive conventional force. One option would be a considerable kinetic strike utilizing its sizeable arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. Beijing could launch a massive conventional missile strike at allied planes sitting unprotected at airfields across the Asia-Pacific. As Roger Cliff explained in a May 2012 interview :

The problem is, there are hardly any shelters at all at most bases in the Asia-Pacific. Kadena Air Base, for example, has a grand total of 15 shelters, enough for at most 30 fighter aircraft if you squeeze two into each. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, also on Okinawa, has no aircraft shelters. There are also no shelters at MCAS Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base on Honshu, or Andersen Air Force Base.

In the event of war U.S. and Japanese forces would face tremendous challenges—including advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles—which could overwhelm, at least on paper, most allied ballistic missile defense systems by sheer numbers. Even assuming a hit to kill ratio of 1:1, Chinese rocketeers would have many more missiles than allied interceptors—essentially, simple math would be the biggest enemy of allied forces. Not even factoring in other domains of warfare, allied forces in a Senkakus conflict—while certainly formidable—would be highly susceptible to a Chinese preemptive or early missile offensive. With very little literature detailing Chinese views on escalation beyond academic works and retired military officials, it is hard to predict Chinese escalation strategies once conflict has begun.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor of the Washington, DC based international affairs journal The National Interest. Mr. Kazianis is also a Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) at the China Policy Institute. Image Credit: CC by Times Asi/Flickr


[i] For a comprehensive analysis of tensions in the East China Sea please see: International Crisis Group, Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks (Brussels, 2013):

Amphibious Posturing and the Senkaku Dispute

Written by Ian Bowers.

The creation of a Japanese amphibious unit tasked with recapturing the nation’s outermost islands following an invasion is part of a package of measures designed to counteract potential Chinese aggression over the Senkaku islands. However, the use of military force to decide the dispute is unlikely given the inherent difficulty of modern amphibious operations and current weaknesses in Chinese capabilities. Both sides’ militaries are being used as signaling tools, posturing but not engaging directly.

Since the Japanese Government purchased three out of the five islands in September 2012, the number of incursions into Japanese territory surrounding the islands both in the air and on the sea has increased at a rapid rate.

Chinese fishing vessels escorted by various paramilitary organisations (which have now been largely united into the Chinese Coast Guard) have repeatedly entered and operated in Japanese territorial and contiguous zones forcing clashes with the powerful but over-stretched Japanese Coast Guard. At the same time Chinese maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft, and drones have approached and sometimes violated Japanese airspace, with the JASDF scrambling over 400 times in 2013 in response to potential violations.

The dispute has become symbolic in terms of the China-Japanese relationship. China is asserting itself and challenging Japan’s strategic positon in the region while Japan is attempting to maintain its position and the status-quo. The Chinese strategy is to place significant pressure on Japanese security institutions through constant low-level activity both to assert its own presence in the region and reinforce the legitimacy of its claims.

While these interactions could set into motion an escalatory chain of events resulting in conflict, the likelihood of China using its military to assert its claims through the insertion of troops or full scale invasion remains extremely low.

While it is true that the PLAN has undergone a sustained and substantial naval modernization program, popularly exemplified in the launching of an aircraft carrier, there has been a relative lack of investment in its amphibious capacity. The PLAN has largely replaced its antiquated medium and large landing ships of which there are over 50 in service. But it only possess three modern LPD type ships (Type-71), there are rumors  that further class of vessels called the Type-81 will be constructed. These will probably be through-deck vessels similar to the French Mistral Class, however there is no confirmation of when they will enter service. For the time being the PLAN have to rely on an amphibious fleet with some significant limitations.

Despite this weakness, the potential for offensive Chinese action has been highlighted by both analysts and the popular press. The PLAN has been training, very publicly in some cases, for limited and contested amphibious invasions in recent years with some of the exercises explicitly linked to the Senkaku islands by Western media and even members of the U.S. military. But the likelihood of the PLAN launching an amphibious operation against the islands is extremely low due to the difficulties such an endeavor would entail.

In the modern combat environment against advanced and prepared forces, amphibious operations are extremely difficult. Advanced ISR capabilities are increasingly nullifying the advantage of surprise, while long range stand-off missiles allow for the prosecution and elimination of targets on route to their objective.[1] These manifest difficulties would need to be overcome by Chinese military planners before any operation could be contemplated.

Additionally, the islands themselves are small and provide little in the way of protection or cover. In much publicized remarks, the Commander of the U.S. Marine forces in Japan suggested that any attempt to take the islands could be defeated from the air and sea with little or no need to deploy ground forces. The risks both military and political to the Chinese in undertaking any such operation would be enormous and likely to render any potential advantage in doing so mute.

The Japanese have prioritized responding to Chinese pressure in their 2013 National Security Strategy and in the 2014 Defense Budget. A package of measures are being invested in based on two core themes clearly aimed at the Chinese; securing the seas and airspace around Japan and responding to attacks on remote islands. The procurement of new and modernization of existing ISR capabilities, including surveillance aircraft, submarines and ground based radar form one part of the development plan. The purchase of the F-35A, new naval vessels and more advanced missile technology will in the future provide enhanced deterrence capacity.

In addition to the above measures, the Japanese government is creating an amphibious unit. While still in its nascent stage, it is ultimately intended to be 3000 strong and take advantage of modernized amphibious vessels, new AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles and the MV-22 Osprey which is currently being procured. This force will be tasked with recapturing an occupied island following an invasion or low-level incursion.  The latter scenario is particularly interesting given the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the fear of the Chinese mirroring such an operation on one of the disputed territories. But, the given the barrier of the sea and the difficulty of inserting forces undetected onto a heavily monitored island, the possibility of either scenario is low.

This new amphibious force should be seen as part a signalling strategy by the Japanese government. Internally, having such a capability highlights Japan’s commitment to its own defense and its willingness to take some of the burden off the United States. This puts the alliance on a more equal footing as the U.S. and Japanese governments renegotiate the guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Secondly, the presence of Japanese amphibious forces is an advanced and effective form of deterrent signaling.  Through publicized exercises both with and without the U.S., the Japanese can use this force to communicate resolve to the Chinese and highlight the risks of any potential action.

In many ways then, Japanese amphibious capability has a similar role to that of the Chinese. While the Chinese navy operate and train to pressure the Japanese and signal capability and power; the Japanese are doing likewise albeit in a defensive context. While the possibility of an escalatory chain of events leading to a military clash exists, it is important to bear in mind the low likelihood of the PLAN attempting to settle the dispute by force given the risks involved.

Ian Bowers is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. He specializes in Asian naval modernization and South Korean security policy. Image Credit: CC by America’s Navy/Flickr.


[1]Jennifer M.Lind, Thomas J. Christiensen, “Spirals, Security and Stability in East Asia,” International Security, 24:4 (2000), pp. 190-200.

China’s Perspective on the ADIZ: Backfire or Signal Flare?

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.

Japan reacts to China’s ADIZ

Written by Corey Wallace.

If China’s recent announcement establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was concocted as part of a strategy to put more pressure on Japan in order to force it to come to the negotiating table on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it shows a clear lack of understanding about the motivations and likely responses of regional stakeholders.

As noted elsewhere, the establishment of the ADIZ in of itself need not have been an inherently provocative gesture. From a broader Japanese foreign policy point of view, however, there are a number of problems with the recent announcement. For a start, the lack of consultation, or even prior notification afforded to Japan before the ADIZ was announced, seemed to fly in the face of recent low-profile diplomatic efforts to improve relations between Japan and the PRC ongoing in the background. The fact that the East China Sea ADIZ covers the Japanese administrated Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands will of course be the major issue however. While the implementation of an ADIZ is not in formal terms a claim of sovereignty, it is certainly likely to be interpreted that way in Japan. It does, after all, raise the possibility in the future that the PLA may seek to assert influence over Japanese civilian and military air traffic transiting through territorial space around the islands. This would modify the current status quo and further challenge Japan’s effective administration of the islands.

Risks and dangers

The ADIZ, if implemented in practice, will also reignite pre-existing concerns among the Japanese security community about the haphazard behaviour of the PLA and Chinese maritime authorities. The prospect of “emergency defense measures” being carried out if a civilian Japanese aircraft fails to provide the required information to the Chinese side within the ADIZ is in itself worrying. This will be all the more concerning because the Japanese security community is unconvinced about the integrity of the PLA’s chain of command, the transparency of defense decision-making processes, and, in general, the exercise of civilian control over the PLA and other security agencies in the PRC. The “painting” of a MSDF destroyer and helicopter at the start of this year reinforced such concerns. While most Japanese security experts and policymakers readily accept that the Chinese government does not ultimately want to be involved in a military conflict, the promulgation of this new ADIZ raises the prospect that accidents may take place, especially if rogue elements within the PLA get carried away, as expressed by former Minister of Defense Morimoto Satoshi. A minor incident could well precipitate a wider crisis that neither side could easily back down from.

This is because the new ADIZ, if enforced, increases the likelihood of direct and potentially dangerous military on military engagements between Japan and China within the large areas in the East China Sea where the ADIZs of both countries overlap. Contestation over maritime control of the Senkaku Islands, while concerning, has generally taken place between Chinese and Japanese civilian agencies with less firepower at their disposal. Earlier this year a civilian maritime surveillance Y-12 aircraft entered the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, leading to the Japanese government responding by scrambling fighters. The next time such an event happens, the PLAAF and the ASDF may well encounter each other directly. Even if the two sides are only willing to go as far as engaging in non-forceful aerial games of cat and mouse, “mock dogfights” within ADIZs can still end very badly. This is all the more problematic given that the Chinese government has resisted engaging with the Japanese government on putting into place necessary confidence building and communication measures, such as military hotlines, that prioritize conflict management.

Reinforcing Negative Perceptions about Chinese Foreign Policy Aims

The Chinese government is increasingly perceived in Japan to be implementing a calculated and “staged” approach to undermining Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, and using antipathy towards Japan as a justification for pursuing a more expansive military policy. For example, in September 2012, the PRC submitted to the United Nations the coordinates for demarcating the territorial seas around the islands. This was identified a precursor to maintaining a routine presence in and around the islands, and since this point incursions in the territorial waters around the islands have rapidly increased. Just two days prior to the ADIZ announcement, it was reported in Japan that Chinese maritime authorities had escalated the stakes again by boarding Chinese fishing vessels in the EEZ waters around the Senkaku Islands. It was confirmed by the JCG that this had happened three times since August, 2013. The ADIZ will therefore be interpreted as a signal of a Chinese intention to further implement its jurisdictional claim.

Indeed, Japanese media has been quick to explore the dangerous implications of the new ADIZs. For example, the Yomiuri labelled China’s action of declaring an ADIZ that includes airspace over islands under the administrative control of another nation to be of “an unusual nature in the international community.” The ADIZ move is seen as providing further evidence of Xi Jinping prioritising China’s “great power” ambitions, rather than steering China towards becoming a cooperative player in building a mutually beneficial East Asian regional framework. Xi’s advocacy for a “New Type of Great Power Relations” for managing future diplomacy, which excludes the interests of regional and global players other than the United States or the PRC, has also not gone unnoticed in Japan. The Japanese media has even reported that various Chinese diplomatic sources have admitted that hard line elements within the Chinese government and the PLA have settled on a strategy to challenge Japan on the Senkakus, to drive a wedge through the US-Japan alliance, and take a hard-line towards relations towards Japan in general. This strategy was apparently consolidated at the end of the recent third plenum, which saw China setting up a National Security Council, and Xi Jinping noting that China needed to directly face external and internal threats to China’s sovereign rights and national security. As such, the East China Sea ADIZ will be seen as setting the stage for a long-term exercising of military influence in the area, especially if the PRC goes on to announce a similar zone for the South China Sea.  With the maiden South China Sea voyage of the Liaoning also being heavily reported in Japan, Japanese politicians and officials have quickly moved to discussing extending Japan’s own ADIZ eastwards to cover the Ogasawara islands in anticipation of future Chinese aerial activity on the back of its new ability to project aerial power.


The Japanese media has enthusiastically noted the stronger and decisive American response to this incident in particular. The immediate B-52 flyover into the newly declared ADIZ, the strong American reaffirmation that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the Mutual Security Treaty, and the strong language used by top American officials, including new ambassador Caroline Kennedy, will reassure the Japanese that it has diplomatic support for Japan pushing back against China’s unilateral assertion of the ADIZ over the Senkaku Islands. Furthermore, as noted by David Cohen at the Jamestown Foundation, the ADIZ fiasco will make it “difficult for the PRC to sustain its account of itself as reacting to Japanese provocation.” Indeed, normally passive observers, such as Australia and even Germany, have expressed explicit concern over China’s actions in this case. The international community may well increasingly come to see the strengthening of Japan’s defense posture as a valid response to perceived Chinese provocations.  A fundamental component of this policy is the strengthening of Japan’s ability to defend, and if necessary, retake any of its 6,800 “offshore” islands. Japan is in the process of establishing a specialised amphibious unit modelled on the US Marines, the purchase of Ospreys, the stationing of ASDF fighters on Okinawan islands, and the establishment of a GSDF monitoring station on Yonaguni Island as part of program to strengthen Japan’s offshore island defense capabilities.

It may also precipitate further US-Japan coordination, especially as this incident appears to have angered the full spectrum of the US security community. Subsequent to the recent Security Consultative Committee meeting, the two governments agreed to revise Guidelines for Defense Cooperation by the end of 2014. The joint statement from the SCC meeting noted that the new guidelines would “aim for ‘seamless bilateral cooperation in all situations’ and ‘appropriate role sharing of bilateral defense cooperation based on the enhancement of mutual capabilities’.” The US also welcomed recent policy initiatives in Japan, such as the establishment of its own NSC, an increase in Japan’s defense budget after a decade of gradual reductions, and proposals to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow for the exercise collective self-defense. While the Japanese public currently remains opposed to significant increases in defense spending, and suspicious of the implications of Japan embracing its right to collective self-defense, recent actions by the PRC raise the possibility that the conservative vision of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo may face less public resistance than it otherwise would have.

Corey Wallace is a Lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the University of Auckland. He teaches courses on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region and his research specialization is Japan’s evolving security policy.

China’s new ADIZ: Do not panic, yet do worry.

Written by Michal Thim.

With the announcement of the new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on 23 November, Beijing has elevated its territorial claims in the East China Sea to a higher level, literally. Chinese officials and experts were quick to argue that the newly established ADIZ is no different from those of other nations and that its purpose is solely to provide stability and security in the designated area. However, the casual observer would be foolish to take these statements at face value. The main intention is to reassert its sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and to test the strength of the U.S.-Japan defence alliance.

After the announcement, Xinhua News Agency published a set of conditions that all aircraft within the new ADIZ must abide by (or face the consequences). The conditions contain the threat of ‘defensive emergency measures’ adopted by China’s armed forces and establish China’s defence ministry as the organ responsible for administration of ADIZ and explanation of its rules.

As noted, ADIZs are not unusual and the U.S. and Japan have established their own in the past. The purpose of an ADIZ typically is to monitor air traffic before it enters into territorial airspace from the outside. Establishment of ADIZ is not a provocative step in itself, yet Beijing imposed the ADIZ abruptly on its neighbours and the U.S. as a major stakeholder without any prior consultation. Moreover, China’s new ADIZ goes beyond the usual practice when it applies the rules on all aircrafts, civilian or state (military, law enforcement, etc.), no matter whether they are approaching China’s sovereign air space or merely passing through the area with final destination other than China. While in the case of the former ADIZ rules are reasonable and widely exercised, in the case of the latter Chinese demands go against the principle that waters and air space outside of the territorial domain are free to access by any state. Chinese proposition, highly problematic in terms of international law standards, is perfectly consistent with Beijing’s assertion about maritime Exclusive Economic Zones, i.e. that these are areas within which outsiders have to ask for permissions if they intend to conduct activities such as military exercises, reconnaissance, surveillance or training missions. While it is reasonable that Beijing is not overly excited with the U.S. military activities in close proximity to Chinese coast, these are not illegal and Beijing does not do its case good service by pursuing far-fetched interpretations of respective international treaties. However, although this all is relevant, the whole case is not primarily about the extent of national jurisdiction within ADIZ/EEZ established over otherwise international space.

hyn竖图模板The main issue with the Chinese ADIZ over the East China Sea is not about an unorthodox approach to rules that should govern this ADIZ but with the very fact that China’s ADIZ overlaps with a previously established Japanese ADIZ and includes Diaoyu/Senkaku islands which are claimed by China but are under control of Japan. The islands themselves are of little significance but waters around them contain important fish stocks and potentially significant deposits of hydrocarbon resources. Tensions over the ownership of the islands escalated after September 2012 when Japan’s government purchased the islands from private owner which invited uproar from Beijing and the decision was preceded and followed by number of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. The newly founded China’s Coast Guard that emerged from multitude of law-enforcement agencies stepped up its patrolling in the area and Beijing is increasingly active in the air space around disputed territory. In January this year, PLAN’s vessel locked its weapons radar on Japanese patrol ship, in October Japan’s defence ministry announced it is considering rules for engaging and possibly shooting down of China’s surveillance drones intruding in Japan’s air space. In 2012, number of Japan’s air force scrambles as a result of an intrusion by Chinese plan exceeded those by Russians for the first time (306 Chinese, 246 Russian). Similarly, within 12 months since Tokyo nationalized the islands, 68 incursions of Chinese vessels were recorded. This increased activity is part of strategy to change the status quo and create a fait accompli situation where the presence of China’s coast guard and its navy and air force will be the new normal. In short, tensions were rising even before the last Chinese step and contrary to voices from Beijing, establishment of ADIZ will mean everything but increasing the security in the area.

So far, reactions to Chinese ADIZ were overwhelmingly negative. Naturally, Japan has strongly denounced the decision as expected. Thus, main focus was on the reaction of the U.S. Both Secretary John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed deep concern with China’s unilateral attempt to change the status quo. Interestingly, Hagel explicitly pointed out that Article V of U.S.-Japan mutual defence treaty applies also to Senkaku Islands. On 25 November, in an act of defiance, the U.S. sent two unarmed B-52 bombers on a training flight into the Chinese ADIZ without complying with Beijing’s conditions. The purpose was to express disagreement and at the same time send signal to U.S. allies in the region as well as to Beijing. While governmental-level reactions were that of rejection, the reactions from airlines were mixed. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines initially decided to comply with Beijing’s demands and provided flight plans to Chinese authorities, however later on this decision was reversed. Korean airlines would not comply unless the government issues new guidelines, and U.S. airlines would not comply either. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s airlines started to provide its flight plans as requested which was justified by Taiwan’s transportation minister based on safety concerns.

The questions that naturally arises is how, in the light of expected disagreement with China’s ADIZ, Beijing plans to enforce the rules it has announced. Some experts question China’s capability to enforce the rules. Under the conditions where some airlines would comply, some won’t, strict enforcement could easily become a nightmare for the Chinese air force. The picture below (taken from gives a rough idea how busy the traffic is in the region and this does not include military and law enforcement aircraft in the area. Therefore number of experts argue that in the beginning enforcement will be mostly rhetorical and slow but incidents similar to 2001 clash between U.S. surveillance plane and China’s fighter jet near Hainan may follow.

Air traffic between China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan,  27 November 2013, 1 p.m. UK (GMT) time (screenshot from )
Air traffic between China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, 27 November 2013, 1 p.m. UK (GMT) time (screenshot from )

There is another important aspect to consider while analysing recent Chinese actions. Beijing may be motivated to take a stance in regards to its sovereignty claim and it is consistently pushing the envelope in this matter. However, it is also interested in testing the reactions of the U.S. and its allies to get a clearer picture for its actions in the future. The Taiwan Strait missile crisis in 1995/96 might have backfired and in the short term it was Beijing’s debacle but at the same time Chinese leaders tested U.S. reaction. In addition, the crisis provided critical stimulus for the development of Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capability that nowadays represents significant challenge for any future deployment of carrier battle group near Chinese shores. More recently, during 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff with the Philippines, China has tested whether the U.S. would go beyond rhetorical support of its treaty ally when the subject of dispute is relatively insignificant elevation. Creation of ADIZ and increased number of naval and air incursions in the disputed area should be understood as part of broader strategy to change the status quo. Should the ADIZ face no strong reaction or should the extent of backlash be acceptable for Beijing, second ADIZ may come soon, this time over the South China Sea.

The risk for the U.S. and other stakeholders, given the recent developments in East and South China Seas, is that no response is likely to embolden China in the future. The decision to send B-52s on a training flight through Chinese ADIZ seems to be kind of appropriate response. However, there is equal risk of unintended incidents and following escalation. So far, there is no reason to panic as the likelihood of shooting war is relatively low but there is ample reason to be worried about the trend.

Michal Thim is a PhD candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs and a Contributing Analyst at the Wikistrat. Michal blogs at Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim.

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