China’s establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone has incited strong criticisms and increased regional tensions. Both authoritative and non-authoritative sources argue consistently and often emphatically that the zone is intended to improve safety and stability, and is not directed at any particular country or target. Yet, the vague language used to describe the zone as well as the extensive and often hostile rhetoric toward Japan suggests that such assertions are incorrect and disingenuous at best.  While China has every right to set up an ADIZ, its failure to reassure other nations as well as clearly define the enforcement and intended impacts of the zone has undermined any purported stabilizing intentions and damaged China’s larger strategic interests.

On November 23, 2013, the Chinese government for the first time publicly announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), a portion of airspace contiguous to (or sometimes partly including) a country’s territorial airspace within which the identification, location and control of foreign aircraft occurs.  Such zones presumably serve national security interests, primarily by providing adequate early warning of aircraft entering or flying near a country’s territorial airspace.1

The United States established the first ADIZ in the 1950s, to reduce the risk of a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. The United States currently has five zones (East Coast, West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam) and operates two more with Canada.2  During the Cold War, Washington also defined the ADIZs claimed by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.  China’s new ADIZ covers a significant part of the East China Sea (ECS) contiguous to the Chinese coastline and overlaps in some areas with the ADIZs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.3   It also includes the airspace above several islands, rocks and reefs that are currently under dispute with Japan and South Korea, including the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands (hereafter referred to as the S/D islands) and the Socotra Rock (known as Suyan Jiao in Chinese and Ieodo in Korean)4, respectively (see Figure 1 in Appendix).

Michael D. Swaine
Swaine was a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.
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Even though many other countries or territories also operate ADIZs and such zones are not prohibited by international law,5  (in fact, ADIZs have no explicit basis at all in international law, other than the general “right of a nation to establish reasonable conditions of entry into its territory”)6,  several countries and many outside observers and commentators objected to Beijing’s establishment of the ECS ADIZ or expressed strong concerns.  Most notably, Japan demanded its revocation, while the United States stated that it would ignore the zone and not comply with any Chinese regulations involving the zone (although out of safety concerns Washington also indirectly advised American commercial airlines to comply with China’s ADIZ)7.  South Korea expressed “formal regrets,” Australia summoned the Chinese ambassador to voice its “opposition,” and the Philippines criticized Chinese threats to safety and national security as well as future control over the South China Sea, while the European Union and Germany voiced similar concerns over armed conflict in the region.8

The basis for such criticisms run the gamut, from the notion that the Chinese ADIZ constitutes an unacceptable unilateral and provocative attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea, as presented by Washington and Tokyo,9 to highly overblown assertions by various pundits that the announcement clearly signals Beijing’s intent to establish a “no-go” zone across the Western Pacific directed at foreign militaries, as part of a larger strategy designed to eject the United States from the region and establish China as the new dominant power.10 

Several critics of the zone stressed more narrow and specific issues, including the exceedingly poor timing of the Chinese announcement, Beijing’s failure to adequately consult with or even inform other nations well before the action was taken, and the demand that any foreign aircraft entering China’s ADIZ file a fight plan with Chinese authorities, even if they have no intention of entering Chinese territorial airspace.11  The latter requirement, along with concerns over Beijing’s use of phrases that indicate an intent to “control” aircraft in the ECS ADIZ, has led some observers to claim that China is attempting to use the new zone to establish “jurisdictional control over the near seas.”12   Still other observers asserted that the announcement of the ECS ADIZ and the follow-up by senior Chinese officials indicated that the action was pressed upon the civilian leadership by the Chinese military or represented a debate or rift between civilian and military authorities in China.13 

Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of such criticisms and comments, it is clear that China’s establishment of an ADIZ in the East China Sea, especially at this point in time, has added significantly to the existing tensions between Beijing and other East Asian nations, most notably Japan, over territorial and other issues, thus complicating efforts to stabilize foreign and security relations among these powers.  However, as with other foreign (and domestic) policy issues, any attempt to assess the meaning and significance of China’s action in this case---and to develop an effective response---requires an accurate understanding of Chinese motives, intentions, and overall beliefs and assumptions regarding the ECS ADIZ, including possible differences that might exist among Chinese leaders and between the leadership, informed observers or analysts, and the general public.

This article addresses Chinese thinking on three basic aspects of this issue, presented as three sections below:

Definitions, Motives, Justifications, and Intentions of the ECS ADIZ

Criticisms by Other Nations and Territories

Near-Term Consequences and Significance of the ECS ADIZ

As in several previous CLMs, our examination of Chinese views on these topics will distinguish between three basic types of Chinese sources:  authoritative; quasi-authoritative; and non-authoritative.14   For each area, particular attention is given to: a) the authoritative PRC government viewpoint (if publicly available); b) views toward Japan and the U.S. in particular; and c) any variations that might exist among Chinese commentators (both authoritative and otherwise), in both substance and tone.  Our analysis of these sources is primarily based on a qualitative assessment of individual items appearing in a wide range of Chinese official and unofficial media.  However, to provide a more quantitative assessment of Chinese media coverage on the ADIZ, various keyword searches were conducted in the People's Daily (PD) and People's Liberation Army Daily (LAD) newspapers, the official media outlets for the PRC government and military respectively, over a roughly one year period from January 2013 to January 2014.15  The results of that analysis are presented at the end of the third section on Chinese views of the consequences and significance of the ECS ADIZ.

In examining Chinese views, this article addresses several specific questions:  What was Beijing’s apparent intention in announcing an ECS ADIZ in November 2013?  To what extent and in what manner is China’s ADIZ related to its policies toward Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States? Do apparent differences exist among authoritative Chinese sources, or between authoritative and non-authoritative sources (and in particular civilian and military sources), regarding the purpose, impact, and overall value of the ECS ADIZ to China?  How do Chinese sources respond to foreign criticisms of China’s ADIZ?  

The article concludes with a summary and assessment of China’s action and its implications for East Asian relations and the security environment in the region.

The full paper, a version of which will be published in the upcoming issue of the China Leadership Monitor, can be downloaded here. The version published here has been updated.


I am greatly indebted to Audrye Wong for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.

1 “Statement by the Government of the People's Republic of China on Establishing the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone,” Xinhua, November 23, 2013.  For a definition of an ADIZ, see “Introduction to Jeppeson Navigation Charts,” Jeppeson, December 30, 2005,  Also see Ruwantissa Abeyratne, “In search of theoretical justification for air defense identification zones,” Journal of Transport Security, 13 September 2011; and “The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations: Edition July 2007,” Department of the Navy and Department of Homeland Security, July 2007.

2 David Welch, “What's an ADIZ?” Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2013.

3 "The A to Z on China’s Air Defense Identification Zone," Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2013; Rick Gladstone and Matthew L. Wald, “China’s Move Puts Airspace in Spotlight,” New York Times, November 27, 2013; Peter A. Dutton, “Caelum Liberam: Air Defense Identification Zones Outside Sovereign Airspace,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 103 (2009).

4 Seoul extended its ADIZ to include the latter feature on December 8, in response to the establishment of the Chinese ECS ADIZ. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Announces Expansion of Its Air Defense Zone,” New York Times, December 8, 2013.

5 David Welch, “What's an ADIZ?” Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2013.

6 “The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations: Edition July 2007,” Department of the Navy and Department of Homeland Security, July 2007.

7 U.S. air carriers are expected to “operate consistent with NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) issued by foreign countries” although this “does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China's requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ.” "China's Declared ADIZ - Guidance for U.S. Air Carriers," U.S. Department of State Office of the Spokesperson, November 29, 2013. A U.S. State Department spokesperson also reiterated that “U.S. air carriers are being advised to take all steps necessary to operate safely in the East China Sea region.” “State Department Regular Briefing,” U.S. Department of State, November 27, 2013.

8 “S. Korea expresses regrets over China's ADIZ,” Yonhap, November 25, 2013; “Australia expresses concern over China air defence zone,” Australia Network News, November 26, 2013; Sara Suanne D. Fabunan, “‘China’s ADIZ a threat’,” Manila Standard Today, November 29, 2013; “EU Voices Concerns Over China's New Air Defense Zone,” RTT News, November 28, 2013; “Criticism of China’s ADIZ increases; Japanese airlines do a policy U-turn,” Japan Times, November 27, 2013.

9 Both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry have made public statements in this regard. See Chico Harlan, “China creates new air defense zone in East China Sea amid dispute with Japan,” Washington Post, November 23, 2013; and Chris Buckley, “China Claims Air Rights Over Disputed Islands,” New York Times, November 23, 2013. For official Japanese responses, “Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the announcement on the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone” by the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, November 24, 2013. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s opposition to the ECS ADIZ included the notion that Beijing was undertaking the effort through coercive “use of force.” “Abe ‘Strongly Concerned’ By China's Setting Up Of Air Defense Zone,” Kyodo, November 25, 2013.

10 Robert Dujarric, “China’s ADIZ and the Japan-US response,” Diplomat, December 7, 2013. “Beijing's Brinksmanship,” Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2013; Stephen M. Walt, “How Long Will China Tolerate America's Role in Asia?” Foreign Policy, December 2, 2013. Jun Osawa, “China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea: A “Great Wall in the Sky”?” Brookings Opinion, December 17, 2013. “U.S., China face off over air defense zone in East China Sea,” Asahi Shimbun, November 29, 2013.

11 Rory Medcalf, “What’s wrong with China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (and what’s not)” The Lowy Interpreter, November 27, 2013. Andrew Erickson, “Watch This Space: China’s New Air Defense Zone,” Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2013. “State Department Regular Briefing,” Office of the Spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State, December 2, 2013.

12 See, for example, Peter A. Dutton, “Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Hearing on China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas,” January 14, 2014.

13 Russell Leigh Moses, “Why Xi Jinping’s Done Little to Sell China’s Air Defense Zone,” Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2013. Chen Yo-Jung, “China’s Contradictory Foreign Policy,” Diplomat, December 16, 2013. Zheng Wang, “China’s Puzzling ADIZ Decision Making,” Diplomat, December 18, 2013.

14 Several types of PRC sources are considered authoritative in the sense of explicitly “speaking for the regime.” They generally include MFA and MND statements and briefings and remarks by senior civilian and military officials appearing in the leading Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (or CCP CC) and military (People’s Liberation Army or PLA) newspapers: People’s Daily (人民日报) and Liberation Army Daily (解放军报). Authoritative statements include, in descending order of authority, PRC government and CCP statements, MFA statements, MFA spokesperson statements, and MFA daily press briefings. Authoritative commentaries in People’s Daily and Liberation Army Daily include, in descending order, “editorial department articles,” editorials, and commentator articles.
Several types of usually homophonous, bylined articles appearing in the People’s Daily are considered quasi-authoritative in the sense that, although indirect and implicit, they are intended to convey the view of an important PRC organization. A major example of this is articles using the byline Zhong Sheng (钟声), which is an apparent homophone for “the voice of the Central,” and appears to be written by the editorial staff of the People’s Daily International Department. Other quasi-authoritative homophonous bylines include “Ren Zhongping” (任仲平, homophonous with “important People’s Daily commentary”), “Zhong Zuwen” (仲组文, homophonous with “CC Organization Department article”), and “Zhong Xuanli” (钟轩理, homophonous with “CC Propaganda Department commentary”).
Many types of low-level commentary and signed articles appearing in a wide variety of PRC and Hong Kong media convey notable yet decidedly non-authoritative views. Such articles appear in the PRC government news service (Xinhua), CCP and PLA newspapers, the Hong Kong–based (and People’s Daily–owned) Global Times (环球时报), and many minor PRC and Hong Kong newspapers and academic publications. Despite the view expressed by some pundits, nothing published in the Global Times is “authoritative” in any meaningful sense, “because the newspaper is a commercial vehicle and doesn’t stand for the People’s Daily, even though it is subordinate to that organ.” Alice Miller, personal correspondence, June 27, 2012.

15 Searches were conducted using the complete PD and LAD databases available through the Library of Congress, for articles published between January 1, 2013 and January 17, 2014 inclusive. The term "air defense identification zone" appeared in a total of 54 and 35 articles in the LAD and PD respectively. Within this pool of articles, further searches were conducted with different keyword combinations, in order to analyze the nature and tone of media discussion. For example, the results show the number of times in which phrases such as "freedom of overflight," "dialogue," or "Diaoyu Islands" were mentioned in the context of the ADIZ. The full list of relevant keyword searches can be found in Figure 2 appended at the end of this article.  This paragraph was written by Audrye Wong.