While the world wonders whether the People’s Republic of China is taking incremental steps towards establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, detailed analysis of Beijing’s already established ADIZ in the East China Sea seems to point to an interesting conclusion: it may not be actively enforcing the zone and it could be part of a sophisticated “bargaining” strategy.
The above concept — and many other interesting conclusions detailing the declared East China Sea ADIZ along with an exploration of a possible South China Sea ADIZ — are part of a new report released by the US-China Economic and Security Review titled “ADIZ Update: Enforcement in the East China Sea, Prospects for the South China Sea, and Implications for the United States.”
The idea that Beijing might not be enforcing its ADIZ in the East China Sea is not entirely new. Indeed, Japanese scholars and retired defense officials on the sidelines of conferences I have personally attended over the last several years have also said as much. One prominent retired Japanese Defense Force official at a conference I attended in 2014 called it “An ADIZ on paper only.”
Reinforcing such ideas to a wider audience, the report nicely pulls together various strands of evidence of why China declared the zone and the reasons why enforcement today would be difficult — even with untold billions of dollars spent to modernize Beijing’s armed forces.
No integrated command
The report points out two big shortcoming China would need to overcome militarily. The first is the issue of command structure, something often overlooked. As the report explains:
“China is moving toward greater jointness in the administration of its ADIZ. China has established a joint operations command center (JOCC) in the East China Sea. A May 2015 report from Kanwa Defense Review—a magazine focused on Chinese defense issues—suggests the JOCC integrates People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, Navy aviation, and Army aviation forces. Administering the ADIZ through a JOCC would facilitate the integration of radar data and the coordination of interceptors. It is unclear when China established its East China Sea JOCC. China previously may have lacked an integrated command center for the administration of its ADIZ, which may have hampered China’s ability to identify, track, and intercept foreign military aircraft.”
The second is important radar infrastructure, which could be lacking — and points to greater problems in maritime and air domain awareness:
“China’s network of land-based radar systems probably is broadly capable of tracking aircraft in its ADIZ, although some analysts suggest its effectiveness may suffer from a gap in coverage resulting from a division of radar assets between the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy. In addition to its land-based radar systems, China has more than a dozen airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft that could increase the PLA’s monitoring capabilities. It is unclear to what extent AEW&C aircraft are integrated into China’s ADIZ enforcement operations. A PLA Daily report from January 2014 indicated China planned to keep at least one AEW&C aircraft available at all times to support the ADIZ.”
Rely on ‘ratchet effect’
So if China may not have the full capability of enforcing an ADIZ over the East China Sea, why make such a declaration in the first place? Here, the report, citing research by the always smart US Congressional Research Service, points out that:
“[China] may be seeking to advance its position [in the East China Sea] over the long term after a short spike in tension, leaving a new status quo with the East China Sea ADIZ in place. [China] would acquire strategic advantage by asserting a maximalist position, then seeming to back down, while preserving some incremental gain — akin to a ‘ratchet’ effect. According to this theory, [China] would project a calm image and justify the East China Sea ADIZ as a ‘reasonable’ step to which foreign nations should not object. If there is an accident, crisis, or loss of life, Beijing could then blame Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, or Washington.”
In other words, China seemingly asserts itself with the strongest of possible negotiating positions — that of a grand ADIZ in the East China Sea, laying down the largest of markers possible in the contested space above the Senkaku Islands. Publicly, and most likely for purposes of domestic politics, Beijing can take a very hard line towards its long-time rival Japan. It has the option of enforcing the zone selectively, just as Beijing sends various types of naval vessels near the Senkakus to enforce its claims on the water, having the ability to ratchet up or down the level of activity as it desires.
South China replay?
In times of lowered tensions or when it so wishes, Beijing could announce it is easing restrictions in its ADIZ, all in an effort to show it is pursuing a so-called “restrained” approach. Or it could offer to ease restrictions as part of a bilateral negotiation with Japan — say limiting its ADIZ to just military and not civilian aircraft. But as time passes, and as China’s military prowess increases, it can slowly (if it so chooses), enforce the zone with greater confidence — if accurate, a very smart strategy indeed. In fact, China loses nothing with declaring an ADIZ it may have difficulty enforcing and looks strong, while Japan, South Korea and the United States all scramble to react and look weak — as many perceived was as the case in late 2013.
And this would all have repercussions in the South China Sea. Beijing could take this same approach, declaring an ADIZ in the months or years to come, using the same playbook as described above. Indeed, with China building islands in the South China Sea — with new airfields being a big part of this approach along with radar sites and anti-aircraft batteries — Beijing may already be on its way towards implementing such an approach.
Harry Kazianis (@grecianformula) is a non-resident Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest , a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute as well as a fellow for National Security Affairs at the Potomac Foundation. He is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest and former Editor-In-Chief of The Diplomat. The views expressed are his own.