China’s ADIZ Escalation: Brace for the New Normal

China’s ADIZ Escalation: Brace for the New Normal

China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over waters and islands claimed and administered by both Japan and South Korea has prompted protests from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, Taipei, and other regional capitals. Statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asserting that Beijing’s announcement will have no impact on U.S. operations were appropriate. The decision to fly two B-52s from Guam through the area was also a necessary demonstration that U.S. deeds would match U.S. words.

What comes next is also important, though. First, the administration must take a clear-eyed view of why Beijing took this provocative step. It is possible that the Chinese were responding to Japanese public debate about the right to shoot down Chinese drones if they hover over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and seen in the photo above). It is possible that the move was a nationalist play by Chinese President Xi Jinping to consolidate conservative control for economic reform measures after the Third Plenum. But it’s also possible — I would argue probable — that the ADIZ comes out of a playbook developed by China’s Central Military Commission under Xi’s supervision that anticipates and is readying for confrontation with Japan and other maritime states in the East and South China seas. The People’s Liberation Army’s new "Near Sea Doctrine" and Xi’s recent statement that the PLA must be ready to "fight and win wars" need to be looked at in a new and much more serious light. This is not a one-off, but part of a long-term Chinese strategic view toward the offshore island chains in the Pacific that must be recognized as a major challenge in Washington.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will not be able to ignore this issue when he travels to Japan, China, and South Korea next week, of course. His message in Tokyo must reinforce the U.S. commitment to Japan and dissuade China, including explicitly reiterating that Article V of the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkakus. In Beijing he should not expect Xi to reverse the ADIZ announcement, nor should he legitimize the ADIZ announcement by discussing how it might be safely implemented. Instead, he should make clear that China has overplayed its hand and then encourage Xi to think about how to undo the damage to Chinese interests. This message will be far more credible if the administration is coordinating regional responses so that the array of opinion against China is unmistakable.

The United States has many areas of mutual interest to address with Beijing, ranging from Iran to North Korea, but this most recent provocation will require sustained effort beyond the appropriate and necessary statements and deployments of U.S. military assets we saw this week.